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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 [47:30]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Burleske in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra [19:06]
Joseph Moog (piano)
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie/Nicholas Milton
rec. 2016, Großer Sendesaal des SR, Saarbrücken
ONYX 4169 [66:39]

When anybody records a warhorse like Brahms Two, they want to set their mark on it. That becomes even more of a point when it’s a young man on the up, and no doubt Joseph Moog wants to show that he is now batting in the big league, able to get to grips with this most symphonic of concertos and to take on the other greats who have done it in the past. He’s periodically successful, and a lot of things about his reading are enormously interesting. However, the disc as a whole is a qualified success only.

You get a bit of a stamp of the Brahms in the opening cadenza, in which Moog’s playing is markedly assertive. This jars slightly after the lovely horn solo in the introduction, and that dichotomy between mellifluous orchestra and forceful soloist is a bit of an issue throughout the first movement. Overall the orchestral texture is really lovely, and the second theme, in particular, sails in on breezy violins, before the turbulence takes over organically, leading to a re-entry for the piano which is exciting but slightly rushed. Moog’s command of the work is pretty secure technically, but a bit blustery. That said, I rather enjoyed it in the stormier moments of the first movement, particularly the very exciting coda, and it works well in the Scherzo too, which has heft but also a touch of the dance in the sway of its rhythm. Moog plays the piano’s introductory meanders through the central section like a beast pawing the ground, and the glorious moment where the piano’s and the orchestra’s lines slot into one another is very impressively handled.

You get a sense, though, that the poetry will come. You get glimmers of it in moments like the delicate way in which he launches the first movement’s recapitulation (against a delightful halo of orchestral sound), and his interactions with the orchestra are beautiful in the Andante, particularly in the central section, which dissolves wonderfully into the return of the cello solo, more songfully yearning than it had sounded before. The orchestral sound is very well-honed throughout, too, with a lovely sense of proportion and control from conductor Nicholas Milton, and the various solos, particularly the third movement’s cello, come across very well. I wonder if it's just that Moog recorded the work a bit too soon, and that his performance would have benefited from incubating for a little longer?

That's much less of a problem in the Strauss Burleske, however, and I enjoyed this performance much more, on the whole. The piece’s intrinsic sense of impishness suites Moog’s temperament much more, and I loved the sense of cocking a snook that you get right from the very first theme. Milton and the orchestra seem to relax into it a whole lot more, too - perhaps it helps that it’s much less of a repertoire staple than the Brahms, so they can afford to let their hair down a little - and there’s frequently a sense of barely-controlled-chaos that’s absolutely perfect for this work. After conjuring up all these fireworks, Moog then surprised me with a beautifully lyrical account of the second theme that had me wondering why he couldn't conjure more of the Brahms.

As I said, then: a qualified success. His Brahms may still be a work in progress but the Strauss is a complete hit.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank



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