Daniel Barenboim’s 1967 set of the Brahms Concertos with Barbirolli and the New Philharmonia grabbed the moment as the young pianist embarked on a voyage of discovery safe in the knowledge that his mentor was on the podium. Barenboim’s 1980s remakes with Mehta and the New York Philharmonic have always struck me as curiously unlovely; the work of two hard-nosed pros with nothing to prove, or lose.
These new recordings stand somewhere between the two, a reminder that Brahms has been as much tormentor as mentor to Barenboim. The Staatskapelle Berlin is Barenboim’s own orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel is clearly having a ball pushing levers and turning knobs that, no matter what he does, are preset to generate a stylistic Brahmsian sound. Riccardo Chailly’s Leipzig set with Nelson Freire arguably finds pliant subclauses within their comparably authentic sound; but Dudamel doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Barenboim’s playing comes, of course, loaded with gravitas, but he is not immune from moments of routine. The Second Concerto’s Allegro appassionato benefits from a temporary lift as Barenboim lightens textures during the repeat. But otherwise he defaults to rather monochrome dynamics and tone. The First is more consistent. Nothing is rushed or forced during the epic first movement while the harmonic elixir of the slow movement is deeply affecting – the Finale even forcing a sly smile.