Reviewers have accused Gilels and Jochum of being ponderous on this disc. That's understandable, to a degree, given the strong emphasis the performers give to the richness and dark soul present in Brahms' concerti. However, I'm quite reluctant to equate this with being "ponderous". Richness and depth don't imply heaviness, and to my ears, our performers never burden us. It's certain that both Gilels and Jochum incorporate a wistful singing quality; there's always a beautiful lyricism, pleasing in a way quite unlike anything I've heard before. Call it ponderous if you want to, but I'm optimistic.
Let's begin by taking a look at the 1st Piano Concerto. Much of the thematic material was intended to be used as a symphony. One could guess as much, given the towering sense of symphonic structure, especially in the lengthy first movement. It's a dark work, one that delivers the fate that we often associate with the key of D minor. It presents serious challenges to its interpreters, asking for the structural aspects of the work to be felt, but, at the same time, this work has got to be more than menace. I think Gilels and Jochum succeed in their efforts. The Berliners play with their Brahmsian richness and depth of tone (this orchestra is unrivaled in Brahms, after all) and Jochum creates a strong orchestral tone for Gilels while not sounding harsh. Gilels' phrasing is genuinely beautiful, letting light come through the clouds. When I'm done listening to this performance, I still think that this is Brahms at his darkest, but there's no way I can consider it cold, at least not in the face of such interpreters as we have here.
Let's be honest: we all like the sunny 2nd more than the fateful 1st. Where else does Brahms rise to such levels of catchy lyricism while being so majestic? It's a glorious concerto, obviously one of the greatest ever. And this is how Gilels and Jochum take it. Their approach is full of grandeur, to be sure, but also refinement. Our performers don't play the piece with their hearts on their sleeves, something I know some listeners may desire. But again, I'm sympathetic, not that everyone needs to be, but I love this approach. It's one that will make you aware of just how songful Brahms is. It could be argued that Brahms should be more monolithic, but I'll say that he can handle the vision of Gilels and Jochum--great composers leave room for endless differences in interpretative vision. I have to think of the many times my piano teacher has told me to "sing" on the piano; it sounds easy to do, but it takes tremendous skill. I know I'm making a big claim, but I've never heard a pianist "sing" so naturally and effectively as Gilels does here. While everything is wonderful, it is the 3rd movement that I find the most promising. It is full of a twilight beauty that leaves me wanting nothing. In short, opinions will vary, but I've welcomed this songful Brahms' 2nd into my collection with delight.
The Op. 116 pieces are short compared to the concerti, but they are given wonderful performances, with Gilels showing the same lyrical gifts that were manifested in the concerti. These are beautiful pieces, written when Brahms was in his late, reflective mood. They are wonderful pieces, with few equals in terms of resigned beauty in the entire piano literature. Hearing Gilels play them has increased my respect for the set, one I'm trying to tackle myself right now. Obviously I'm not rivaling Gilels!)
In closing, if you want Brahms that sings, you've found it. I certainly find this set very desirable, with sound that's not bad for early 70's analog.