The two Brahms piano concertos stand like bookends to his career. The First had a long and difficult gestation, starting life as a symphony. The premiere was a disaster, with hissing and slow hand-clapping. One reviewer wrote that it was more a 'concerto for piano against orchestra', than a concerto for piano and orchestra. It's young man's music - turbulent, aggressive and passionate, with moments of great tenderness, especially in the slow movement.
The Second is a vast work in four movements. Brahms (always ready to issue misleading news on his new works) described it as a small work, light and cheerful. However, it is imbued with the autumnal sunshine warmth of late Brahms, and, although not without moments of great drama and another deeply emotional slow movement, is a supremely confident work from a composer at the peak of his powers.
Both concertos require a titanic pianistic technique and wrists of steel. Stephen Kovacevich's first recordings of these two works were highly praised when first issued. They are appropriately and generously coupled with solo works roughly contemporaneous to each concerto. Kovacevich has gone on to make other fine recordings of this repertoire, but these show him at the height of his considerable powers.
New booklet notes.
'Let me say straight away that the performance is extremely fine; indeed, such is its eloquence that I put aside the score and notepad and just listened for pleasure the first time round.' Gramophone (First Concerto), June 1981
'The performance combines poetic feeling and intellectual strength in no small measure, and it is one to which I am sure I will want to return. There is an unforced, natural eloquence that I much admire; the first movement unfolds without any false urgency and momentum; it is spacious, autumnal, reflective as well as majestic.' Gramophone (Second Concerto), December 1981
"Visceral, inspired, spiritual and sensual, his Brahms balances on the edge, yet reaches profound repose for slow movements."