BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in d; Four Ballades – Paul Lewis, p./ Swedish Radio Sym. Orch./ Daniel Harding – Harmonia mundi

Power and poetry infuse every measure of the Brahms works including a gripping version of the Concerto.

BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in d, Op. 15; Four Ballades, Op. 10 – Paul Lewis, p./ Swedish Radio Sym. Orch./ Daniel Harding – Harmonia mundi HMC 902191, 72:12 (4/15/16) ****:

“A concerto that has quite enraptured me with its grandeur and the fervor of its melodies,” commented Clara Schumann in 1856 on the evolving First Concerto of Johannes Brahms. A massive combination of sonata and symphonic form, the work fuses the keyboard part so intimately with the orchestral fabric that, besides the tumultuous character of the Maestoso first movement, critics at the 1859 Gewandhaus premiere and the second Leipzig performance condemned the piano’s role as an obbligato component. Obviously, the work’s acceptance and recorded history have long justified its contribution to the repertory, constituting as it does a complete denial of the Mendelssohn or Weber tradition of the fleet, virtuoso vehicle for superficial display.

Paul Lewis and Daniel Harding (rec. May 2014) collaborate in a gripping, seriously expansive approach to this music, in which even the outset – a huge chord and kettledrum roll – sets a fateful tone for the remainder of the realization. In the manner of a Baroque concerto, the introductory solo material differs from the orchestral tutti’s concentration of dramatic spasms; and after a series of improvisatory flourishes resolves into a lyrical, F Major countersubject. Lewis, who has already proved his mettle in the music of Beethoven, Liszt and Schubert, certainly can produce a ravishing legato when he desires the effect. The integration of the two principal forces moves through the French horn call in tandem with the Lewis arpeggios, and later the emotionally wrought progression in the development to the short-lived waltz theme. With a series of explosive, demonic gestures, Lewis and Harding move to the recapitulation, which has gained even more vehemence. Yet, in the midst of the tragic throes, Lewis and Harding manage to elicit that warm, “Brahms sound” from the strings and woodwinds, culminating in the quasi-cadenza Lewis plays prior to the re-entry of the clarinets. Once Lewis and Harding set the coda into motion, it achieves the dazzling peroration that marks my own favorite versions by Rubinstein/Reiner, Hansen/Fricsay, and Solomon/Jochum.

Brahms specifically asks the solo keyboard part to play expressively and sweetly in the Adagio movement, and the soft woodwind introduction contributes to an air of mystery and reverence, especially in light of the music’s serving as a requiem for Robert Schumann. The colorful, nuanced harmonic progressions in the keyboard grope their way forward, culminating in a response in the woodwinds that erupts into a brief paroxysm of valediction. The latter pages enjoy a sweep and power of expression that befit the sturm und drang aspects of the Brahms early style. The players of the Swedish Radio attain a lovely homogeneity of sound, no surprise to those who recall what the late Sergiu Celibidache could educe from this ensemble. The last movement, a huge palindrome of a rondo, snaps the leash, as it were, reveling in the bravura aspects of all principals. Assertive and driven, the music exhibits a kind of muscular optimism of spirit in spite of the oppressive tension of the earlier movements. Fleet trills, arpeggios, scalar passages, and rounded phraseology from Lewis command our attention, while Harding brings sweet harmony even into the Brahms polyphony. Of no small note, the Lewis cadenza late in the movement proves nobly forceful and pointed, the gradations of color mightily impressive. It has been a traversal of a familiar core that has never for a moment been routine.

Lewis turns to the early, solo piano music of Brahms to complement the concerto: the Four Ballades of 1854. Unusually ‘programmatic’ for Brahms, they reveal their Schumann influence, and that composer called these works “strangely beautiful, secretive and demoniac.” The d minor, Op. 10, No. 1 depicts a Scottish narrative, “Edward,” of parricide and confession. Lewis rivals Michelangeli for power and sweep in this piece.  The succeeding Andante in D Major exudes tender and mysterious melancholy. The ‘fate’ motif – so beholden to Beethoven – remains endemic to the young Brahms. The spiky Intermezzo in b minor enjoys a series of savage, acerbic gestures. Its central episode, however, invokes clarion, soft bells, rife with a folk innocence before the imp of the perverse returns. Finally, Lewis presents an adumbration of late Brahms and his rainy-day thoughts, here in an eminently lyrical Andante con moto in B Major.  Brahms pays homage to Schumann’s “nostalgia for the dream” that marks that Romantic’s fusion of poetic feeling and literary allusion.

This disc comes highly recommended!

—Gary Lemco

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