Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
Ballades (4) for piano, Op. 10
Johannes Brahms' "Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15," went through several stages before it was completed in 1858. He envisioned the work as a sonata for two pianos, then as a symphony, before settling on the piano concerto structure. The final realization reflects this. The work, by some of its first hearers, seemed un-concertolike, with the piano and orchestra knit closely together instead of allowing the piano the opportunity for pure solo display. As time passed by, this intricate structure came to be seen as one of the work's glories. Brahms may have thought he was struggling with Beethoven's monumental mode of expression, but he was actually absorbing something else: Beethoven's depth of motivic structure. The depth of contrast in the work, and especially the limpid slow movement following the epic, knotty "Maestoso-Poco più moderato," are especially Beethovenian. Recordings of the work are abundant, but several factors recommend this Harmonia Mundi release by Paul Lewis, who has quietly emerged as one of our top specialists in 19th century Viennese repertoire, with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding. The first is the sense of deep collaboration between soloist and orchestra, collaboration that catches the nature of the work. Sample the opening movement, especially in the passages where soloist and orchestra naturally intertwine closely (such as in the harmonically more active parts of the development section), for a taste of the depths that await the listener. Second is the playing of the Swedish Radio Symphony itself: Harding has them playing at the peak of their powers, with an ensemble that matches the precision and detail Lewis brings to the work. Finally there's the set of "Ballades" that rounds out the program. These preceded the concerto in composition and give a sense of the creative world from which the concerto emerged, and they might easily have been programmed with it by Brahms himself. Lewis' reading emphasizes the growing reach in the music. With close-up sound from Harmonia Mundi capturing the orchestral detail, this is a state-of-the-art Brahms "First."