Brahms: Piano Concertos (CD review)

Also, Scherzo in E flat, Op. 4; Ballades, Op. 10; Klavierstucke, Op. 76. Stephen Kovacevich, piano; Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra. Newton Classics 8802010 (2-disc set).

Sometimes we find fortune conspiring to produce an ideal confluence of performers in certain works.  When it happens once, we feel lucky. When it happens over and over again, as it did with pianist Stephen Kovacevich, conductor Colin Davis, and the London Symphony Orchestra, it's probably more like fate than luck. Think about it: During a period of about ten years several decades ago, Kovacevich, Davis, and the LSO gave us some of the best Beethoven Piano Concertos ever, some of the best Mozart Piano Concertos, probably THE best Bartok, Grieg, and Schumann Piano Concertos, and these two Brahms Piano Concertos. It's gratifying to have the Philips recordings of the Brahms Piano Concertos now reissued in this Newton Classics set.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1858 when he was only in his mid twenties. The work is all craggy and monumental in scope and full of the boundless energy of youth, yet Kovacevich's playing is so fluid and assured, he makes it sound positively poetic. The opening movement, which can often appear downright dark and gloomy, Kovacevich here renders as flowing, even lilting, while still maintaining its grand dimensions.

Kovacevich makes the second movement properly elegiac, a tribute to Brahms's late mentor, Robert Schumann; and the finale is appropriately tempestuous. There's nothing inflated or overstated here, just a sensitive, self-confident account of the music, with Davis and the orchestra lending perfectly attentive and responsive support.

I've always liked Brahms's Second Piano Concerto (1881) better than the First Concerto because it sounds more obviously mature to me, more lyrical, and more tuneful. Written quite a few years after the First Concerto, the Second Concerto is unusual in its four-movement structure; Brahms included an extra movement, a Scherzo, because he thought the opening movement too simple, too plain. It is the slow Andante, however, where both Brahms and Kovacevich shine. It is absolutely heaven-sent and heavenly in its execution. Then, the final movement is light and airy, a sign perhaps that with age Brahms had grown confident enough as a composer not to have to impress audiences and critics with a continual storm of grandiose notes.

Filling out disc one, we get Kovacevich playing Brahms's Scherzo in E flat, Op. 4, and the four Ballades, Op. 4. On disc two the fill-ups are the eight short solo pieces that eventually comprised the Klavierstucke, Op. 76. As in the rest of the program, Kovacevich plays with power, grace, playfulness, authority, and intimacy, as the occasion demands.

Philips recorded the two Piano Concertos in 1979, with the Second Concerto initially sounding better than the First. Remastered on this 2010 Newton Classics set, however, I hear little of the bass overhang in the First that I noticed years ago fogging over the midrange. The only thing is that in both works, the piano is a little more forward than I like, the instrument seeming a tad bigger than the accompanying orchestra. Philips recorded the solo works digitally in 1983, and the piano sounds a trifle clearer and cleaner than in the analogue Concertos; it's not necessarily more lifelike, though, because the sound of the piano in the Concertos, while softer, displays a pleasingly realistic warmth.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa