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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

  • Piano Concerto #1 in D minor, Op. 15
  • Piano Concerto #2 in B Flat Major, Op. 83
  • Scherzo in E Flat minor, Op. 4
  • Ballades, Op. 10
  • #1 in D minor
  • #2 in D Major
  • #3 in B minor
  • #4 in B Major
  • Pieces, Op. 76
  • Capriccio in F Sharp minor
  • Capriccio in B minor
  • Intermezzo in A Flat Major
  • Intermezzo in B Flat Major
  • Capriccio in C Sharp minor
  • Intermezzo in A Major
  • Intermezzo in A minor
  • Capriccio in C Major
Stephen Kovacevich, piano
London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
Newton Classics 8802010 2CDs
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These are reissues: the concertos were recorded in 1979, Opp. 4 and 10 in 1983 and Op. 76 in, I believe, 1985, though the accompanying material doesn't list a date for that set. They were all originally released by Philips, and for that same label Kovacevich, then known as Stephen Bishop (he would later attach his mother's surname to Bishop, and then eventually drop Bishop altogether), and Colin Davis also collaborated in the three Bartók and five Beethoven concertos, as well as in concertos by Mozart and Stravinsky. So as a team the two apparently worked well together: their Bartók and Stravinsky were very good, but I cannot speak for their Beethoven or Mozart, since I never acquired those discs.

The sound is excellent in all works on these Newton Classics reissues. How are the performances? Kovacevich is a fiery pianist, an artist with a powerful technique and a tendency toward brisk tempos. Davis can be laid back, but he generally draws muscular and fairly straightforward performances from the orchestras he conducts. Here, the two produce a brilliant collaboration in these challenging works. Kovacevich delivers moderate to briskly-paced readings of both concertos, capturing the youthful darkness of the First Concerto and epic grandeur of the Second in full measure. Davis seconds his approach and manages to draw brilliant playing from the London Symphony.

The Brahms Second has always posed a problem of sorts for the pianist: the common wisdom on the work has been that it's not really a concerto, but a symphony with piano obbligato. Well, of course, that's an exaggeration, but the piano is rather secondary in the first and third movements. Kovacevich plays the cadenza near the beginning of the opening panel powerfully and majestically, but he's not single-minded in his approach, as he catches the tortured character of the main theme variant moments later with a subtle sense of intimacy that grows to glorious agitation. Kovacevich plays convincingly throughout, and I would rank his spirited Second a marginally better performance than his First. Rubinstein and Serkin/Szell have been my preference in the First, while Serkin/Szell, Cliburn, Richter and Jando have held sway in the Second. Kovacevich can probably stand in the company with these – his performances are that good. I should note that the other Brahms Second I reviewed this year – the Joaquin Achucarro on an Opus Arte DVD, which coincidentally also had Davis as conductor – was less impressive than this Kovacevich effort.

In the solo pieces Kovacevich is equally convincing. He has been a consistently masterly interpreter of Brahms' solo piano music throughout his career. He also recorded the Opp. 116, 117 and 119 pieces for Philips in 1983. It is an excellent collection that may still be available in the Philips Digital Classics series. In any event, this Newton Classics double-CD set is highly recommended.

Copyright © 2010, Robert Cummings.