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Brahms’ Lieder & Liebeslieder Waltzes for piano four-hands and vocal quartet have attracted many gifted pianists to their freewheeling, emblematic vignettes of romantic joys and woes. Benjamin Britten and Claudio Arrau (IMG Artists/ BBCB8001-2); Clifford Curzon and Hans Gál (Decca 0289 425 9952 9); Rudolf Serkin and Leon Fleisher (Sony 545997); and Dinu Lipatti and Nadia Boulanger (Cascavelle 3081) have left us memorable recordings with characterfully expressed passion, sentiment and wit.

The Verbier Festival in 2003 featured conductor and pianist James Levine and virtuoso Yefim Bronfman dispatching these works with four opera singers. A piano student of Serkin and Rosina Lhévinne before his noted conducting career, Levine has often served as a vocal accompanist for opera singers. For this reason, perhaps, the most impressive part of the programme is the quasi-operatic Liebeslieder Waltzes, depending more on drama than charm.

Possibly aiming for a relaxed quality in other songs, Levine and Bronfman sound and at times. In these straightforward, unsentimental renditions, the only emotional excess heard is from the overheated audience, whose screams of bravo were immortalised by the sound engineers. The Op 52 collection is so brisk that it leaves scant room for charm, the raison d’être of these songs. Some light-hearted ensemble numbers are taken at such a clip that they evoke hectic virtuosity rather than lovability. In solo songs, Levine is supportive but muted, neutral, and remote, as if somehow preoccupied. This cool approach to Lieder pianism went out of style with the English ‘Am I Too Loud?’ school of the 1940s and 50s.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2017 - ©Rhinegold Publishing