The Brahms piano concertos are recorded so frequently, and so poorly, that at times you might despair of ever hearing a modern performance that has both a point of view as well as a profound understanding of the composer's style. Well, look no further. Coming hard on the heels of the droopy and depressing Zimerman/Rattle version of the First Concerto for DG, Nelson Freire and Riccardo Chailly offer interpretations of both works that stand with the very best available. Recorded live, this must have been some pair of concerts. The First Concerto in particular is totally thrilling, a take-no-prisoners, blood-and-thunder account of a work far too often tamed and neutered by its performers.
Chailly begins with a rock-solid opening tutti, his swift tempo reminiscent of Szell in his glory days, and no compliment could possibly be higher. It's remarkable how much better the Gewandhaus Orchestra sounds than does the Berlin Philharmonic for Rattle: the strings phrase naturally and without affectation, the woodwinds are well balanced, and the texture is warm yet transparent. This is the true Brahms sonority. Freire, for his part, has internalized the music to the point where it flows out of him like an elemental force. His initial entrance simply sweeps the listener up into the ongoing dialog between solo and orchestra. As the movement proceeds, he builds the dramatic tension steadily, with huge climaxes and a singing tone that has huge amplitude without ever turning harsh. The movement's coda offers the last word in Brahmsian excitement.
Both here and in the Second Concerto Freire and Chailly stress the lyrical, vocal qualities of the respective slow movements. Tempos flow effortlessly, without dragging, and in the latter work this permits the solo cello to emote without stickiness or excessive sentimentality. In the finale of the First Concerto and the Scherzo of the Second, Freire's articulation and use of accent maintain tension irrespective of the chosen tempo (the former is admirably swift, the latter aptly more measured to give proper weight to the cross-rhythms). The finale of the Second Concerto is lightly sprung, but never to the point where the music turns excessively salon-like, and the Hungarian episodes really smolder: perhaps it's the Latin heritage of both conductor and soloist, but it's so rewarding to hear the music played with passion and temperament.
The engineering in both works is well balanced, big, and bold, matching the extravert character of the performances. To my mind the only serious competition for sets containing both concertos comes from either of the Szells, with Serkin or Fleisher, both on Sony, or possibly Buchbinder/Harnoncourt on Warner or Gilels/Jochum on DG. There are, of course, excellent individual discs, including Arrau/Kubelik live on Orfeo in the First Concerto, and Richter/Leinsdorf (RCA) in the Second; but if you're looking for Brahms playing in modern sound that treats the music as a living, spontaneous event rather than as a decadent relic of a past civilization, as we so often seem to get these days (witness Rattle/Zimerman), you can't do better than this spectacular achievement.—David Hurwitz