Clifford Curzon plays spectacularly well in these recordings of the Brahms piano concertos -- although by "spectacularly" I don't mean that he in any way is flashy or self-regarding. He just finds the right style and sound for the character of the music. His sound (including his phrasing) in, for example, the first and fourth movements of the Second concerto are nothing like anything one heard in the First. The brusque authority of the opening of the second, and the "galant" quality of the final movement aren't part of what's required in the First, and so sure is his sense of taste or tact (and his confidence in his execution) that he knows what to bring to bear and when to bring it. If the Second Concerto (with Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic) can't be a first recommendation for this performance, the only reason is the sound: it's perfectly decent 1957 mono, but it doesn't have the presence that, five years later, John Culshaw found, in stereo, for Szell and the London Symphony with Curzon in the First Concerto. It needs to be said, though, that Knappertsbusch is on top form. It has been said that he was a bit sloppy and prone to rhythmic instability, but that isn't the case here. The orchestral playing is shapely and alive, and these qualities come across despite the limitations of the sound.
What's indispensable about this issue is the recording of the First with Szell. The sound is so much superior to the digital Kovacevich/Sawallisch 1992 recording that it isn't even funny, and John Culshaw, then in the middle of recording the Ring cycle with Solti, knows how to balance piano with orchestra and where to make discreet adjustments. Most impressive here, though, is the rapport between Curzon and Szell. Curzon plays with lovely tone, and his phrasing is anything but mechanical, and Szell stays with him all the way, through the different characters of the sections of the first movement and, most beautifully, in the slow movement, which is simply magical. The idea that Szell was some kind of soul-less martinet is given the lie here. For me, this slow movement has never been done better -- and Fleisher, Gilels, and Kovacevich have all given lovely accounts of it. This one, though, is nonpareil. Then, in the final movement, I have never heard the tempo relationships better handled. Conductor and pianist seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and the whole thing is just life-enhancingly spirited. I like to think that Szell and Curzon discovered a deep mutual respect in the course of making this recording. Something special was going on.