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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1853-8) [49:05]
Piano Concerto in B flat major, Op. 81 (1878-81) [48:54]
Stephen Hough (piano) Mozarteumorchester Salzburg/Mark Wigglesworth
rec. 11-15 January, 2013, Salzburger Festspielhaus
HYPERION CDA67961 [49:05 + 48:54]

These are not Stephen Hough’s first recordings of the Brahms concertos: he recorded both of them for Virgin Classics with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis around 1989/1990. I haven’t heard those performances but the recording of the Second Concerto received a rather muted welcome here from Tim Perry, largely on account of what he judged to be lacklustre conducting by Davis (review). Jonathan Woolf was similarly disappointed (review). I hope if either of them gets the opportunity to hear this new account of the concerto they will feel it merits higher praise; I rather think they might.
 
First we must consider the new recording of the D minor concerto. Things get off to an auspicious start: the orchestral opening is fiery, the playing muscular and strongly profiled. There’s a slightly grainy sound to the strings - I don’t say that in a negative way - and all in all Mark Wigglesworth and his players convey the impression that the music is, in annotator Jan Swafford’s words, ‘massive and dramatic’. Stephen Hough, when he joins them, is on the same wavelength. Throughout this huge, taxing movement there’s an abundance of sinewy strength in both the piano playing and the contribution of the orchestra. Yet the reflective side of the music is in no way underplayed; that’s excellently done too. All in all I felt that all the facets of Brahms’s movement are well explored here.
 
Jan Swafford, author of a fine biography of the composer, reminds us that Brahms told Clara Schumann that the second movement was ‘a tender portrait’ of her. It’s beautifully done here with the poetic side of Hough’s pianism well to the fore. He’s impressive too in the more ardent stretches of music and once again one has the distinct feeling of soloist and conductor on the same wavelength. In the rondo finale Swafford states that Brahms followed the time-honoured practice that a concerto finale should be ‘light, brilliant and vivacious rather than ponderous’. The movement is definitely not ponderous but this is an occasion when Brahms’s high spirits were on the serious side or, at least, purposeful. Hough rises completely to the virtuoso demands of the piano writing - as he has throughout the concerto - offering much dexterous playing. Once again you feel that Wigglesworth and his players are with him every step of the way. The final pages are very exciting, bringing a notable reading of this concerto to a fine conclusion.
 
The D minor concerto was the product of a great deal of compositional labouring by Brahms; it took him five years to complete. By contrast the B flat concerto is a work written when he was at the height of his powers. The first movement is scarcely less imposing and ambitious in terms of scale than the corresponding movement in the D minor concerto - in these performances the first movement of the D minor concerto plays for 22:53, the first movement of its companion takes 18:19. However, where so much of the earlier concerto’s opening movement was turbulent in nature here we have a much more lyrical - and, dare one say, confident - spirit. Jan Swafford very rightly points out that the nature of the piano part is constantly changing, ‘its music moving from long unaccompanied solos to lacy filigree accompanying the orchestra.’ Whatever Brahms asks of him Stephen Hough achieves in a most satisfying and accomplished fashion, his playing responsive to all the nuances of the score. There may be less turmoil in evidence here than was the case with the D minor work but the piano part is still a major test of pianistic strength and stamina. It’s also demanding on the conductor and orchestra but all involved pass Brahms’s tests with flying colours.
 
It’s perhaps significant that the scherzo is in D minor for in some ways we’re plunged back into the emotional world of the earlier concerto in this dark, surging movement. In a powerful performance Stephen Hough invests the music with great energy and no little passion. He and Wigglesworth collaborate in a tremendous performance. Wigglesworth sets quite a flowing tempo for the gorgeous third movement; his pace is a little faster than I can recall hearing on disc before and overall he and Hough take 11:52 whereas in the justly renowned Gilels/Jochum performance (DG, 1972) the movement plays for 14:02 - and never seems a second too long. But the tempo marking is ’only’ Andante, so I think the pace in this present performance is fully justified - and it works. The lovely cello solo is played very well indeed by Marcus Pouget though I think that Ottomar Borwitzky (for Jochum) had a slightly richer tone. Here we have a wonderful performance that is detailed and romantic. The exquisite transition back to the cello solo with which we began (6:11 - 8:10), always a touchstone for me, is magical. The music of the finale is light and good humoured and these performers clearly enjoy it. There’s wit and grace in Hough’s playing and the orchestra match him. This, then, is another highly successful performance, just like its companion on the other disc.
 
As a look at our Masterworks Index for either concerto will confirm, there is an abundance of top quality recordings of each in the catalogue. I bought the Emil Gilels set when it first came out on LP and in its CD incarnation it continues to be a cornerstone of my collection (review). Curzon and Szell take some beating in the D minor concert (review); it’s interesting that they’re significantly more expansive than Hough/Wigglesworth in the Adagio. I also greatly admire the readings of both works from two very different pianists: Solomon (Testament) and Stephen Kovacevich (EMI). Other readers will have their own personal favourites, I’m sure.
 
However, this new Hyperion set can be ranked with the very best. The pianism is of the highest order, both technically and intellectually, while Stephen Hough seems to have found an ideal collaborator in Mark Wigglesworth, who here makes his Hyperion debut. The performances have been captured in very good sound by engineer Simon Eadon and producer Andrew Keener while the booklet essay by Jan Swafford is succinct and valuable. Hyperion are offering these recordings as a two-for-the-price-of-one set, which increases the attraction. I shall continue to listen with great pleasure to all the recordings mentioned in the previous paragraph - and some others besides - but I know I’ll also be returning often to this very fine set. These performances now join the select list of reference recordings for both concertos.
 
John Quinn

And another review ...

It is important to realise that currently (December 2013) there are some 152 recordings of Brahms’ D minor piano concerto and 176 versions of the B flat in the Arkiv database. The list of pianists, conductors and orchestras is a veritable checklist of performers from the past seventy years. It seems impossible to mention all of them, but important releases must include Emil Gilels, Wilhelm Kempff, Stephen Kovacevich and Vladimir Horowitz. My favourite is Clifford Curzon with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch. This dates from 1960-61 for the Second Concerto and George Szell and the London Symphony Orchestra in the First. These were the first recordings of the two concertos that I heard back in the early seventies and I have stuck with them through the years. Fortunately, they are available on CD.
 
Stephen Hough’s new recording of both concertos on Hyperion has impressed me in every way. Whilst I cannot say they have usurped Curzon - that is a historical thing - they will be my preferred modern version of these great and diverse works.
 
The Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor was Brahms’ first essay in concerto form. The work began life in 1853 as a sonata for two pianos which was then partially rewritten as a symphony. The first movement of this latter work was incorporated into the concerto which was eventually completed in 1858.
 
The D minor concerto is in the ‘classical’ three movements. The remarkable thing is the relationship between the soloist and orchestra: the music to a large extent fuses the piano into the fabric of the whole orchestral texture.
 
The opening movement is deemed to be Brahms’ reflection on the tragedy of Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide. The older composer had recently tried to drown himself and had been declared insane. The ‘adagio’ is a ‘tender portrait’ written for Clara Schumann. Brahms had fallen in love with her and remained so for the rest of his life. The finale of the D minor concerto is a ‘traditional’ rondo, full of drama and Gypsy song which brings the work to a largely positive conclusion. The technical requirements of this powerful and dramatic piece are tremendous: it is surely one of the most difficult works in the genre.
 
It was first heard at Hanover with Brahms as soloist. Hardly a success, the composer noted that it was a ‘splendid and decided fiasco’. Brahms nevertheless had faith in his concerto and reckoned that someday it would be liked.
 
The first sketches of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat were made in the spring of 1878, shortly after he had returned home from Italy. It was not until 1881 that he settled down to complete the score during time spent at Pressbaum, near Vienna.
 
The work has been described - a little unfairly - by Eduard Hanslick as being ‘a symphony with piano obbligato’. Perhaps it could be better defined as a ‘symphony for piano and orchestra’? The work received its premiere on 9 November 1881 with the composer as soloist. The Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Alexander Erkel.
 
The Second Concerto differs from the usual model by having four movements. It is the second movement which is the ‘interloper’. It has been suggested that this could have been omitted. However, this is passionate music that contrasts well with the relatively straightforward opening ‘allegro non troppo’ in spite of Brahms, with tongue in cheek, referring to it as a ‘tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo’. Few would wish to cut this movement these days. The slow movement is innovative. Brahms begins with a long cello melody which largely dominates the opening pages of this ‘andante’: it is not until a third of the way into the movement that the piano begins to get a grip on things. The finale is once again a rondo that is light and untroubled and is in complete contrast to the earlier movements.
 
As might be expected from Hyperion this is a striking release in every manner. I was impressed, but hardly surprised, at the sound quality which is excellent. The liner-notes give a good informative introduction to both concertos. This is historical and descriptive rather than technical. There are brief bios of Stephen Hough and Mark Wigglesworth but not the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg. Information about this orchestra can be found at their website which is in German.
 
I guess that there can be no ‘definitive’ performance of these two great works. Pianists and conductors will always find new emphases and hidden meanings. I cannot fault Hough’s playing: the balance between the sheer virtuosity and the intimacy of this music is perfectly stated. Each concerto has a different mood and palette of emotions. Hough brings a special quality of reflection to these works which for my taste gives a considerable added value. It is too easy to assume that Brahms hid his sentiments under the guise of ‘classical imperturbability’. The secret to playing the Brahms piano concertos would seem to be gaining an equilibrium between ‘head and heart’. Stephen Hough has achieved this considerable feat to a masterly degree.
 
John France 

Masterwork Index: Brahms piano concerto 1 ~~ Concerto 2


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