Brahms
Piano Concerto No.1 in D-minor, Op.15
Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat, Op.83
Adam Laloum (piano)

Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
Kazuki Yamada

Recorded August & October 2017 in the Grosser Sendesaal, Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
88985460812 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 36 minutes
Reviewed: March 2018

Winner of the 2009 Clara Haskil Competition, Adam Laloum studied with Michel Béroff at the Paris Conservatoire and Evgeni Koroliov in Hamburg. He's built quite a reputation, leading some French commentators to compare him with past greats as disparate as (in the same breath) Horowitz and Arrau. Sony Music signed him last year, and this ambitious package is his first (rush) release. Sony’s backing is confident: major repertory; six days of recording; a decent German orchestra; a talked-about conductor, Kazuki Yamada, Artistic Director of Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo; personality-focussed packaging...

A costly project, then. But how wise a one? Laloum isn't short of enthusiasm, ability or experience. But he's still learning and feeling his way – masterclasses with Bashkirov or dates with Gergiev are unlikely to have taken him that far. Jessica Duchen's booklet note, mainly in the form of an interview, occasionally reveals more than was perhaps intended. Of his relationship with Yamada, he says, “we were searching out the interpretation together … we weren't trying to 'fix' the music, but to let it breathe, just giving it our natural energy.” Searching out an interpretation in one's study, yes. In the studio, musicians and microphones waiting for the off? “Brahms [in his concertos] demands that we have multiple personalities.” Show us a Mozart exemplar that doesn't expect the same. “It's dangerous to feel comfortable in Brahms – because his music is never comfortable.” Name a composer who ever wrote comfortably – the 'simplest' Haydn can unseat the unwary. Rocky territory.

Physically involving no doubt in a concert but less than fully polished, Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto fares least well. There's lots of verve and youthful impetuosity, but by the end what's wanted is less high-gear driving force and more by way of longer-breathed paragraphs, shaped phrase endings, and contrasts of characterisation. Laloum thunders away – relishing the chordal textures, powering the low octaves and storms of the second movement – but generally steers clear of emotion-baring lyricism and, whatever the glitter and glory, doesn't have so much time for the grace or playfulness of the Finale. The framing sections of the Andante disquiet the most. Its closing B-flat twilight may endure (Brahms sees to that) but where others have found flowers and poems, dreams, Laloum discerns merely fragments. 10:45 says the clock. Compare that with Zimerman/Bernstein (14:30), Gilels/Jochum (14:00), Moravec/Bělohlávek (13:45), Richter/Leinsdorf, Anda/Karajan (12:40). Agreed, a select handful have been as quick or quicker overall than Laloum – Bachauer, Berezovsky, Casadesus, Horowitz for instance – but with the benefit of predominantly calmer orchestral shaping and more disciplined ensemble detail than Yamada can muster. Also superior solo-cello offsets. Reflecting on the very start of the work – scene setting at its most famously, atmospherically exacting – it's baffling, with (presumably) so many sessions, that the producer, Florian B. Schmidt, couldn't get a better quality of opening note from the first horn.

The D-minor Piano Concerto survives better – though I can think of plenty of 'hungry' players on the current competition circuit capable of producing more tensile, electrifying results. Decades ago, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, I remember Radu Lupu and Tennstedt giving a performance so completely classical, completely Sturm und Drang, completely dramatic, that it left the us reeling, rendering all criticism or description superfluous. Short of that yardstick, Laloum's problem is that technique doesn't provide for everything. For too much of the time a mundanity bordering on routine, a tendency to 'beautify' moments through leaning and hesitation, isolation before integration, a curious reluctance to broad-brush a melody or its harmony, makes for a start-stop reading. The post-Beethovenian Finale doesn't have to be fast (it’s Allegro non troppo) but it shouldn't be pedestrian either. The piano rarely 'rings' or yields to fantasy, and neither it nor the bland, airless way it's recorded triggers the imagination. If you want muscular 'bite', an urgency of synchronised semiquaver energy, look to other pastures. Orchestrally, Yamada strives hard yet seems less than entirely engaged, like his soloist prepared to detach and home-in on episodes (consider the Adagio) but otherwise offering few genuinely symphonic landscapes or brilliantly lit panoramas.

Erring on the side of woolly, whitening out any inkling of individuality or adventure, the engineering of both works is clinically dispassionate – leaving us essentially with pasteurised Brahms, a faceless voice lost in a crowded street.

 

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