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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat, op. 83 (1), Klavierstücke, op. 118
Joyce Hatto (piano)
National Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/René Köhler (1)
Recorded 4th March 1992 and 19th May 1998, Concert Artist Studios
CONCERT ARTIST/FIDELIO RECORDINGS CACD 8001-2 [75:25]

MusicWeb has suspended the sale of Concert Artists discs until it can be resolved which were actually recorded by Joyce Hatto

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The musical world moves in strange ways. When invited to review a series of recordings by Joyce Hatto I accepted more or less out of idle curiosity. I remembered that a pianist of that name had recorded some Bax well back in the LP era for a little-remembered label, and supposed these were recordings made around the same time that somebody had seen fit to unearth. The label itself aroused my curiosity, for alongside memories of Concert Hall and their pioneering Bax 4 with Handley and the Guildford Philharmonic, were not Fidelio among the first to put bargain-price records on the market, only to be hopelessly swept away as the majors realised the potential of their back catalogue in this field? But all this, I thought, belonged to the dim and distant past, the labels and their artists having long since disappeared from view (except Handley, of course).

Nothing could be further from the truth. The label was founded in 1952 (you can read the full story at the website above) and has always remained in existence. From its first issues on 78s it has moved with the times; its CD catalogue is extensive and enticing, it maintains a full cassette catalogue at a time when the big companies are issuing only the most popular repertoire in that format, and it is a firm believer in the potential of the mini-disc.

All the same, I remain puzzled. Where has it been all these years? How is it possible for a company to issue all this repertoire with practically nobody being aware of it? How many records do they actually sell? With giants like EMI claiming that classical CDs just lose money, have they found the magic fount? Or is some wealthy patron of the arts down at Royston, Hertfordshire in rural England happy to amass a catalogue, with the question of sales an optional extra?

And where has Joyce Hatto been all these years? For these are not old reissues at all. Over the past decade this pianist has been in and out of the studios, recording the complete Beethoven sonatas, the complete Mozart sonatas, all Chopin, all Schumann, plenty of concertos with this same (pseudonymous?) orchestra and conductor, lots of Bach, lots of Liszt; again, take a look at the website for a full list.

So who is Joyce Hatto? Well, she studied composition with Seiber and Hindemith, and piano with Cortot, Nadia Boulanger, Drzewiecki (in Warsaw) and Ilona Kabos (in London), and she has played under De Sabata and Beecham as well as the composers Orff, Britten, Vaughan Williams and Malcolm Arnold. Since De Sabata retired from conducting in 1957 and Vaughan Williams died the following year, my curiosity as to her age is probably rather ungentlemanly but the mystery remains. If she has been playing around the world all these years (yet again, visit the website to read her curriculum), why is the world so little aware of her?

Because, you may be thinking, she is not especially good. Well, however she may have played in her earlier years, in her maturity she is unquestionably a very fine pianist indeed, whose discs (to judge from the first two I have heard), will repay the closest study. The op. 118 pieces are a locus classicus of how this music should go. The sound is mellow and songful, full when needed but never heavy, the inner accompanying figures somehow filling the air with notes without ever dominating over the melodies. The tempi move easily (no. 1 is richly passionate but not overdriven, no. 2 is not allowed to drag). Is it a little too autumnally reflective? Hardly so when the elusive no. 4 is invested with such tragic passion (Concert Artists were evidently so proud of this performance that they put it on the disc twice over). Nor is there any emotional short-changing in no. 6, one of Brahms’s starkest utterances. Those used to Julius Katchen’s gentle way with no. 5 will be surprised at Hatto’s full-toned, forward-moving opening, but in fact Brahms wrote espressivo without any dynamic marking (the theme is marked piano when it is repeated 8 bars later) so Hatto’s guess is as good as Katchen’s. In general I much prefer her performances to Katchen’s, highly regarded though they are, since Katchen’s undoubted insights reach us through such a maze of expressive nods and nudges that I can hardly sit out a single piece from him.

Whether the concerto is on quite the same pedestal will depend rather on your reaction to the first movement. During the orchestral introduction it seems woefully slow; yet when Hatto enters, how full of notes the music is even at this speed. In fact, Hatto’s richly commanding playing lets us hear details that are often brushed over and the tempo sounds perfectly natural when she is playing. The orchestra (a perfectly good one) doesn’t quite manage this. Is it because the tempo is wrong or because the conductor, though evidently an able musician, is not on Hatto’s same level? She should have recorded it, maybe, with Kurt Sanderling in his late phase.

The remaining movements are more "normal" in their tempi and Hatto’s pianism is always to be enjoyed. However, to bring off a Brahms concerto successfully you do need a partnership of the highest level and my feeling at the end was that the music had run its course well without the pair quite striking sparks off each other. This is a performance I shall return to, but not a first recommendation. However, Joyce Hatto is a pianist who demands to be heard and the op. 118 pieces are alone worth the price of the record. The recordings are warm if a little lacking in presence at climaxes.

 

see also

review by Jonathan Woolf

JOYCE HATTO - A Pianist of Extraordinary Personality and Promise: Comment and Interview by Burnett James

Christopher Howell



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