BRAHMS Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2
Composer cycles have become a dime a dozen, mostly because they often fall into the trap of focusing on the printed page to the exclusion of all else. Apart from the score, there are other less tangible elements to consider. Brahms’s two piano concertos stand as prime examples, partly because they were both premiered by Brahms himself, partly because they come from such different times in his life that, beyond their respective compositional styles, their intentions and spirit remain poles apart. That belief clearly fuels Hélène Grimaud’s new recording, with Andris Nelsons conducting two vastly contrasting orchestras. There may be better performances of these concertos out there but it would be hard to find a pairing that draws a greater distinction between the two.
Grimaud, who has lived with the early D minor Concerto for decades, has called Brahms’s Op 15 ‘a piece I need to survive’. Indeed, she recorded it with that kind of urgency for Erato back in 1997 with Kurt Sanderling and the Staatskapelle Berlin, her passion making up for the lack in sheer power you’d find in accounts by the likes of Brendel or Pollini. With Nelsons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Grimaud’s second recording of the First sounds a tad less youthful, a tad more disciplined, but the balance between those two elements remains truly inspired. Nelsons and the Bavarians are on nearly every level a better match for Grimaud than Sanderling and the Staatskapelle, in this case fully encapsulating a young composer out to make the piano and orchestra equal partners.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, are a truly imposing force right from the opening. This can hardly be reduced to differences between Austrian and Germanic playing, although the older Brahms was considerably more Viennese. Rather, it reflects a two-decade advance in Brahms’s symphonic profundity. Where the Bavarians emphasise flexibility and spontaneity, the Vienna Philharmonic make the simplest musical utterances seem epic. Grimaud has clearly spent much less time with Op 83 but by again forsaking power for emotional depth – this time stressing an aura of contemplation – her results end up being no less monumental.