This review is a corrective to an earlier unfavorable one I wrote two years ago. Since then, a triumphant recording of the Brahms Second Cto. was issued by Nicholas Angelich and Paavo Jarvi. In light of that, I wondered if I had gotten off on the wrong foot with their Brahms First Cto., recorded in 2008. It's heartening to root for rising pianists, and I had expected a lot from Angelich, american born and turning 41 this year. He is Paris-based and has recorded Brahms chamber music to critical acclaim.
My initial reaciton had been that this Brahms First was soft-grained and shapeless. Paavo Jarvi gets off to a fairly low-key start, with reticent phrasing and not much attempt to discipline Brahms's sprawling exposition. When Angelich enters, he falls in line, giving us lovely, mellow piano sounds (abetted by an outstanding recording) that don't bring the solo part into sharp enough focus. This is a heroic work, and we are supposed to sense the stuggle and conflict inherent in a stream of grand events. At least that's how most successful soloists approach the Bwork, in my experience. Floating on a cloud isn't a satisfying substitute.
That was then, but now I am more sympathetic to a softer, more lyrical approach, reminding myself that Ivan Moravec shaped his Brahms concerto recordings along much the same lines. Jarvi and Angelich clearly want to make a new impression, one of unbroken lyrical flow, and they stay true to their conception through the Adagio and finale. I still wish for more dramatic tension and rhythmic vitality, but this is a real interpretation, and I find myself respecting it more the second time around.
The CD is filled out with nine Hungarian Dances, played four-hand by Angelich with Frank Braley. The absence of punch and vitality in these silky performances leads me to believe that Angelich sees Brahms very differently from the way I do -- smoother, carefully nuanced, and much less robust and energetic. There's room for that approach, just not at the very summit.