The brand-spankin’ new recording of Brahms’ piano concertos by the team of Nelson Freire and Riccardo Chailly beckoned. Though I’m not much of Chailly fan, I rather like Mr Freire’s recent solo recordings, and since I haven’t bough a new recording of either concertos in probably a year <gasp!>, this would do nicely. But why buy only one set when one can buy more than one? So I also picked up Anton Kuerti’s 1998 recording of the concertos with Joseph Rescigno leading the Orchestra Métropolitan. I’m not sure why. Perhaps to compare a probably glorious recording (Freire) with a potentially disastrous one (Kuerti). My prejudicial assessment proved inaccurate.

I decided to start with the first concerto, and I opted for Freire’s first. This is almost literally hot off the press, as it were, having been recorded this last February. The first thing one notices is how beefy and rich the orchestra sounds, all while maintaining fine clarity. This is some top-drawer Decca sound, though that means that quite a few microphones were deployed, though highlighting is tastefully restrained. The second thing one notices is how small the piano sounds. That is, the piano is presented in its proper concert context – it’s the central instrument, but it does not and cannot overshadow the assembled accompanists. While that’s refreshing, it also means that the piano is occasionally drowned out by the orchestra, as one would expect here. Anyway, the Maestoso opening is tragic and strong, Chailly leading his Gewandhausorchester in a most satisfying opening salvo. Freire’s first entrance is simultaneously lovely and tragic, but somewhat undernourished by traditional concerto recording standards. His first, heated flourish aside, Freire stays comparatively lyrical – sort of like a nimbler Moravec. Chailly and his band are intense. Thus is formed the dialogue between soloist and orchestra – and a compelling dialogue it is! In contrast, the Adagio is absolutely beautiful and tender. Freire blends wistfulness and sadness perfectly. To close, Freire opens the Rondo in crisp, fast, vigorous fashion, and the orchestra adds even more oomph. Everyone is on, and everything sounds excellent. Truth to tell, I wanted even more.

That’s what I got with Messrs Kuerti and Rescigno. This is a decidedly different take on the same work. The Maestoso is not as strong and beefy, but it’s leaner, more tense, more biting. There’s sting and anger and tragedy; the playing is brighter in sound but darker in mien. The strings sound thinner and wirier than under Chailly, but, frankly, it’s more appealing. Kuerti opens in a clearer, leaner fashion than Freire, and his accenting is at once more pronounced and flowing. How he does it I do not know. The obviously more closely-miked Kuerti offers up a plethora of unique personal touches, with seemingly every tonal, dynamic, and tempo shift thought-through. A long section between roughly 13’ and 15’ finds Kuerti playing with such a wide variety of touches as to make most other versions I’ve heard sound plain. And though a studio recording, the playing sounds at least as spontaneous as with Freire. The Adagio is also leaner than in the previous recording, and if it sounds less immediately beautiful, it is more engaging in every other respect. Kuerti’s playing is not as tender as Freire’s, but it is more personal. Kuerti does a superb job of evoking thoughts of Brahms and his situation: his friend is insane, his great love for his friend’s wife will never be satisfied, and what’s needed is a personal working out of personal issues. Too precise? Maybe, but it works. It’s just plain despondent and painful at times, like the playing after 9’20,” which is nothing if not an outpouring of anguish. The Rondo conclusion offers relief, with all concerned playing with virtuosity and energy that at times borders on the aggressive. This is a magnificent recording.

Freire’s piano sounds bigger in the second concerto, and what a lovely treat that is! He seems to revel in devouring the opening of the Allegro non troppo, playing with fire, drive, and ease bordering on (Giesekingian) nonchalance. The orchestral response is massive, rich, and clear. The following exchanges between the forces are always energetic and unabashedly grand and possessed of a thick yet alluring lyricism. The Allegro appassionato is passionate indeed, with all concerned playing with even more oomph than in the first movement. The Andante is beautiful and taut, with a fine solo turn from the principal cellist. The overall character is warm and tender, with Freire’s playing sounding as lyrical as one could hope for. Very strong tuttis do nothing to hamper the unforced beauty of the movement; hell, they probably help. The grand concerto ends with an Allegretto grazioso that sounds buoyant and fun, big-boned and vigorous. Freire and Chailly are in perfect accord and deliver a superb reading. I figured that I’d like Freire more here; his style seems better suited to this concerto. I also figured it would trump the more aggressive Kuerti.

I was wrong. Both Kuerti and the band play in a leaner, more incisive fashion again, and the overall sound is smaller, though it still sounds grand (can this concerto be anything else?), but it all sounds more compelling. Kuerti seems to dash off the opening with even greater ease, and as the opening movement progresses, he throws in more personal touches, playing in an angular staccato-happy style for a while before moving on to playing of amazing tonal and dynamic variety. The orchestra is more distant, though it’s still clear, with greater drama the end result. Yet it never sounds really “showy,” if you will. Kuerti takes off the gloves for the second movement; he’s more assertive and unrestrained, and if perhaps his playing sounds like an eidolon of passionate playing rather than passionate playing itself, it nonetheless works fabulously. And all the expected Kuertisms work very well here. The lovely Andante isn’t quite as lovely here as in the Decca recording, and the solo cello turns are not as beautiful, but the whole thing is more touching. A few times the playing veers dangerously close to sentimentality, but fortunately it never becomes too syrupy. Kuerti here deploys his formidable technical arsenal, especially his superb quiet playing, to marvelous effect. The concerto ends in a suitably buoyant and very rhythmically enjoyable way, with Kuerti spicing things up in a personal and effective way. I’ve never heard the solo part delivered quite this way before. Here’s another case where the underdog wins out.

Contrary to my expectations, Anton Kuerti delivers a superb set of Brahms concertos. So does Nelson Freire. Had I only bought Freire’s set I’d be very happy indeed. But it is surely Kuerti’s set that offers the more insightful, rethought, and reworked approach – an approach that seems to breathe new life into the works. He and his maestro take a lean and pointed and aggressive approach and take nothing for granted. Throw in some superbly rendered Op 117 Intermezzi, and this is one heck of a set. (There’s also a three disc set that has more of the late works. Perhaps I should try that . . .) Nelson Freire and Riccardo Chailly also do extremely well, just less well. The sound is certainly better in the Decca set – it can be played at crazy loud volumes – but the sound of the Kuerti set is very good, too. Both sets make a welcome addition to my collection; the Kuerti set enters the race for recording(s) of the year.