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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A Op. 16 (1868) [30.07]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Piano Concerto in a Op. 54 (1841-45) [31.55]
Henry LITOLFF (1818-1891)

Concerto Symphonique No. 4 in D minor Op.102 (1852) – Scherzo [7.21]
Joyce Hatto (piano)
National Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/René Köhler
rec. Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, March 1997 (Schumann and Litolff) and February 1999 (Grieg)

This is the iconic coupling of course – spiced by the sparkling Litolff – that served down the LP age as surely as the Bruch G minor/Mendelssohn did for violin concertos. It still serves in the CD age, as numerous issues show.

When prosaic pianistic chops were handed out Joyce Hatto was not around. That much is clear from her recordings generally and with respect to this one the Grieg reinforces the point. She made a number of recordings with the late René Köhler and his band with its haughty-sounding pretensions to the kind of status enjoyed by another erstwhile Philharmonic-Symphony - that of New York in the days of Toscanini, Barbirolli, Rodzinski et al – and this is the latest to arrive.

They make a good, trenchant sound with crisply focused tuttis very nicely caught by the recording team and string choirs making their mark with convincing tonal allure. Winds are characterful and lyric. Hatto’s view of this work, adeptly partnered by Köhler, is an intensely poetic even prayerful one. It abjures the bombastic and the plushly extrovert. So, for example, she takes the molto moderato that qualifies the opening movement’s Allegro and insists on it. She spins a dreamy line, full of elastic melodic impress and displays a persistent refusal to build to precipitant climaxes. It’s a slow reading of this movement and some may find it rather too determined to excavate the more interior Peer Gynt moments; the cadenza is considered rather than overtly or explicitly exciting and the climax is measured.

But what Hatto insists on is the less obvious aspects of a work so often played as a barnstormer; the prayerful gentleness of the slow movement, the pious, almost religious unfolding of the string cantilena, a certain dignity if you like. That’s not to discount the nimble filigree of her open air playing in the finale, her articulate watchful trajectory. It’s a different reading of the work and remains consistent throughout, no mean feat. Two of her august British predecessors in this work, Curzon and Solomon, took very different views, naturally – the latter tending to milk the slow movement somewhat, though with gorgeous liquidity it must be admitted. Hatto is rather more of an Apollonian in this work; there are plenty of Dionysiacs as it is. Poetic and noble are the adjectives that I would use to characterise this performance and, rather like her unusually Gallic recording of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto, it will divide opinion. But for those jaded or bored by "yet another Grieg" it offers a poetic, personalised and rich infusion.

For the Schumann we move back two years and into a rather more resonant recorded acoustic than that for the Grieg. It imparts a certain halo to the piano sound but not an unattractive one. Her way with this is rather less individualised than the Grieg. She’s not at all averse to some captivatingly witty phrasing in the opening movement. And while her playing and phrasing are very different from a one-time advisor such as Cortot (whose recording with Landon Ronald is seldom absent from the turntable) she nevertheless manages to evoke something of the preternatural stillness, by strongly different means, that he summoned up. She arches and relaxes with considerable romantic persuasiveness here and equally in the central movement – never indulgent for a moment – and manages to evoke a concentrated stasis of utterance that is most impressive for its conflation of finger dexterity and control - and retardation - of momentum.

She etches less than other powerful Schumann exponents such as Géza Anda for instance, and inclines to a more pliant architectural line though you’ll find the Phil-Symph’s woodwinds are no match for Kubelik’s classic Berlin Philharmonic. In the finale she doesn’t stint the wit but neither does she allow the music to fracture as it so often can into trinkets of finery and stop-start rhetoric. So she’s less immediately colourful and quixotic than Anda but keeps the argument commensurately tight and forward moving.

There’s a sparkling bonus in the shape of the Litolff, a work I always associate with Irene Scharrer from days of yore. Here it really glitters.

Jonathan Woolf



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