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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

This disc has been withdrawn from sale as it might not be performed by Joyce Hatto

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1858)
Rhapsody in E flat, Op. 119/4 (1893)
Rhapsody in B minor, Op. 79/1 (1879)
Rhapsody in G minor, Op. 79/2 (1879)
Joyce Hatto, piano
National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/René Köhler
Recorded at St Mark’s Church, Croydon, United Kingdom, June 1995 and at Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, United Kingdom, September 1997
CONCERT ARTIST CACD8000-2 [70.13]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83 (1881)
Klavierstücke, Op. 118 (1893)
Joyce Hatto, piano
National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/René Köhler
Recorded at Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, United Kingdom, March 1992 and May 1998
CONCERT ARTIST CACD8001-2 [74.04]

 

With the bewildering number of recorded performances of standard repertoire available to collectors we might start to lose sight of the magnitude of the undertaking. At around the fifty minute mark, each of the Brahms piano concertos makes stupendous demands on the soloist, and not only from the technical point of view. As she launches the apparently easy-going finale of the second concerto, especially in a live performance, she must really be wondering, as Karajan used to about Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, in which life she began the work.

These performances are not new and have already been reviewed on this site. Many collectors will already know and admire them, but they are presented here in excellent, newly remastered sound and both discs are available for the price of one. Those who have been following the Concert Artist series of Joyce Hatto performances but have not yet encountered these particular issues will know what to expect and will not be disappointed. And for those new to the pianist or for whom the name evokes only vague memories, I heartily commend them to you.

The approach to both concertos brings a subtle balance between the sober and the dramatic. What strikes the listener at the opening of both concertos is that the tempo is on the slow side, but in no time the concentration of the playing allays any doubts. This is in part thanks to excellent orchestral playing and magisterial direction on the part of René Köhler. The bass line is never neglected, and he seems to have a knack of bringing out, without a hint of self-consciousness, the lower and inner parts of the string ensemble, many of which we find we are hearing for the first time. The orchestra itself plays extremely well, clearly inspired by their soloist and conductor, and there is some very characterful playing from wind soloists. The all-important horns are excellent, too, in both concertos.

Conductor and soloist seem perfectly to understand the role of the piano in these two works. They are not concertos which pitch the soloist against the orchestra in mighty conflict, nor yet is it sufficient to see the piano as a concertante or obbligato instrument. The truth lies somewhere between the two views. Of course this is a far more complex and subtle matter than simply orchestral balance, though soloist and conductor are expert at making sure we hear everything we should. It is to do with the interaction between soloist and orchestra, and the way in which the soloist must adapt her playing to suit that role at any given time. Joyce Hatto is a commanding player who nonetheless never seeks the limelight. She is at the service of the composer at all times, and the final chords of these concertos leave the listener reflecting on Brahms’ achievements rather than that of the performers’. This is all the more remarkable when we consider the playing itself. From the mighty trills in the first movement of the D minor concerto to the subtle, inward quality of its slow movement Hatto produces playing as individual as any pianist, though it is, of course, a very different kind of personality which emerges here than in her recordings of, for example, the Tchaikovsky concertos.

Another characteristic of these performances is a sense of the work’s architecture. The playing is rugged rather than precious, and once again we have the impression that Brahms’ intentions are the performers’ priority. There is a sense of inevitability about the playing, and the feeling of growth and development in each concerto is emphasised.

A few particular points now. The opening tutti of the First Concerto is impressive and commanding. The tempo, as already noted, is slow, but pulse and movement are both emphasised, and nowhere does the tempo drag. This is Brahms orchestral playing at its best. The arrival of the soloist – surely one of the most beautiful in the concerto repertoire – is perfectly prepared and anticipated. Detailed control of phrasing and dynamics produces one of the most inward and touching slow movements I have yet heard in this concerto, and the lively finale is particularly well done, the humour of the fugato passage perfectly realised by the orchestra and, when she joins them, the soloist herself. The opening of the Second Concerto will seem to some listeners even slower, but surrender to it, listen to it on its own terms and the control of the playing throughout the movement soon convinces. The second movement – Brahms’ "tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo" – is particularly successful. I was looking forward to the recapitulation where the orchestra and soloist change places, and Joyce Hatto’s stupendous bass octaves do not disappoint. The slow movement is blessed with the same qualities as that of the First Concerto, and the cello soloist clearly sees his role as section leader with an important solo passage to play rather than as a soloist in his own right, a point of view which is fine by me. The finale goes wonderfully well, smiling where it should and leaving us to ponder, as it also should, why Brahms decided on a relatively lightweight finale like this in such a heavyweight work.

No-one will buy these discs for the couplings, but they will not be disappointed if they do. Joyce Hatto plays these solo works with enormous authority and insight. There is great luminosity and clarity in the playing here, the fragments of melody and their often highly charged accompaniment figures superbly integrated. More remarkable still is the elusive, ambiguous nature of this music, especially in the later pieces, which is perfectly realised by Joyce Hatto.

This is playing of the very highest quality and comparing these performances to others seems irrelevant, the idea of a "best buy" Brahms Piano Concerto even distasteful, yet inevitably Joyce Hatto’s performances have sent me back to others on my shelves. Amongst them – sad to say – the most convincing and authoritative tend to come from the past: Arrau, Backhaus, Gilels and – a personal favourite – Serkin. Joyce Hatto easily finds her place in this hallowed company.

William Hedley

see also Jonathan Woolf's review of Piano Concerto No 1 and Piano Concerto No 2



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