Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor (1858)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat (1881)
Simon Trpčeski (piano)
WDR Sinfonieorchester/Christian Măcelaru
rec. 2023, Kölner Philharmonie, Germany
Linn CKD732 [2 CDs: 95]

This is a treat: a recording of both of Brahms’ piano concertos planned and performed as a pair – which is rarer than you’d think – and given musical treatment that is both lavish and loving. Trpčeski, Măcelaru and the WDR Orchestra make these well-established keystones of the repertoire sound by turns grand, intimate and always extremely impressive.

From the first movement of the first concerto, there’s a sense that this isn’t going to be a by-numbers set of performances where the music plays out exactly as you’d expect it to. Instead, the musicians allow Brahms’ music to breathe and to unfold naturally, even to change and evolve before your ears. The opening of No. 1, for example, goes off like an orchestral thunderclap, but Măcelaru’s overall approach to the orchestral writing is mellifluous and harmonised, not jagged or forbidding, and the orchestra gives him an underlying lyricism that is consistent throughout all the movement’s epic drama. When it first enters, the piano has a perceptible touch of that same lyrical, singing tone, retaining its smooth beauty even as it gets caught up in the thunderstorm. The chordal second theme sounds really beautiful, played with both delicacy and firmness of touch, and with a lovely sense of rubato to give the phrasing some life. The orchestra answers it with just as much subtlety: the violins’ statement of the theme is, if anything, a little too understated, but when it returns later in the movement it’s irresistibly warm and tender. That’s the organic sense of evolution in action: recapitulations or restatements of themes are never cookie-cutter; the theme is changed by the journey, and we are changed as listeners, too.

Măcelaru takes the slow movement more briskly than, say, Rattle/Zinman, who are still my guilty pleasure in this movement, for all that some find them indulgent. Again, however, the performance grows as it progresses: the moment about two thirds of the way through, where the piano rhapsodises after the restatement of the main theme, sounds heart-meltingly gorgeous here, and carries with it a sense of resolution, of love consummated despite obstacles. It’s perhaps the most unashamedly romantic movement in the whole work, and it sounds marvellous.

The finale that follows is disarmingly playful, like a light-hearted skip through the music’s troubles rather than an existential life-and-death struggle. Even the really tempestuous moments sound like they’re being played with a smile and even a sly wink in places, and that happens long before the final turn to the major which takes us over the finishing line in a burst of sunlight.

That sense of playfulness spills over into the performance of the second concerto, particularly in the finale, which is so tripping and light as to be almost dainty. It combines Mediterranean sunshine with Hungarian tang, and it hangs together beautifully. It also makes for a nice development from the gorgeously expansive Andante, where the flowing gentleness of the cello solo seems to seep into the piano line which wanders slowly and purposefully across its music.

There is serious meat in the first two movements, of course, but they’re never so weighty as to be forbidding. The opening is beautifully, magically pregnant with possibility, launching with a horn solo that manages to be both assertive and modest, and the orchestral colour throughout the opening tutti is forthright and purposeful. There is terrific confidence to Trpčeski’s playing throughout this mammoth movement, but he is also unusually playful in places with, for example, an unexpected staccato touch in his treatment of the opening theme, and Măcelaru matches him with orchestral tone that is always perfectly shaded, by turns forthright and energetic or relaxed and expansive. The synthesis between them reaches its height at the start of the recapitulation, that tantalisingly beautiful moment where rippling piano gives way to the restatement of the opening theme on solo horn. There is a terrific sense here of everything slotting into place at exactly the right time and pace, and the result is extremely satisfying.

There is also a chewy sense of purpose to the Scherzo. We’re left in no doubt that this is Serious Music, and there is consequently a more serious tone to the playing here, sounding dark and driven in contrast to the sunlight of the other movements. The clipped vigour of the Trio comes as a wonderful contrast to this, though, with bell-like orchestral clarity contrasting with the meandering gloom of the keyboard until, just as in the first movement, the two seem to slot into one another perfectly, producing a terrifically satisfying climax before the return of the Scherzo section.

Throughout both of these discs there is a strong sense that these are musicians who listen to and understand one another. The WDR Sinfonieorchester might not be in the very front line of European orchestras, but they play superbly here, and they are beautifully captured by the Linn engineers, who also balance orchestra and soloist very well indeed, with air and space around the sound. Every movement here feels like its own journey, its own world, and when experienced as a whole that makes for first rate music making and overall views of the concertos that make coherent sense.

Every Brahms lover will already have their favourite performances of these mighty works, and nobody is going to set aside their sets of Gilels/Jochum in Berlin or Friere/Chailly in Leipzig; but this is a strong recent alternative to set alongside them. Warmly recommended.

Simon Thompson

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