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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1881) [46:09]
Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119 (1891-93) [15:25]
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. 12-15 January 2006, Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, TX; 11 February 2006 at the Poston Hall, Suffolk, England.
HYPERION CDA 67550 [61:41]

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Brahmsí autumnal second piano concerto stands in rather stark contrast to his tumultuous first, perhaps reflecting the life experiences of the twenty-three years that lay between. The second concerto, although by no means short of virtuoso display, is much more closely related to chamber music. And yet, Brahms cannot separate himself from the orchestra, casting the work in four, instead of the traditional three, movements, and making both outer movements far more expansive than was common for the concerto of the period.

In a performance that is the amalgam of a weekend of concerts, Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, no stranger to big romantic literature, turns in a solid, well-paced and controlled performance. This was a bit of a surprise to me I must confess, since I had attended one of the concerts in question in person and was under-whelmed with Mr. Hamelinís performances. Andrew Litton is, however a real master in the recording studio, and through some good editing on Hyperionís part, we have a final product that is very fine indeed.

The chamber music nature of the opening movement is not lost on Mr. Hamelin. He and Maestro Litton work well together as a team, and we never get the impression that there is anything but collegial music-making happening here. Litton lets the orchestra sing where it needs to, and Mr. Hamelin is careful never to just thunder through the louder passages for the sake of virtuosity. It is always a surprise to hear the burst of energy that is the second movement, and Hamelin tears into the music with abandon. The third movement is a beautifully reflective dialogue with some magnificent cello playing from Dallas Symphony principal Christopher Adkins in the famous solo. It all comes to a fine close in the finale, in which Hamelin keeps everything under firm control, never beating up on the piano. Instead, he is ever at one with his instrument, and with the music.

Of particular merit is the rich, singing tone that Litton gets from the Dallas Symphony strings, and some nice playing as well from the horns, whose prominent part is played to perfection. It is music-making of this quality that makes us grateful that Andrew Litton loves to record, and sad that he no longer heads the Dallas orchestra. This is very satisfying all round, and it is particularly rewarding to hear this piece played at just the right tempo: not too fast like the old Serkin recordings of yore, and thankfully not lugubrious as in later Bernstein with Krystian Zimmerman at the keyboard.

Mr. Hamelin rounds off the program with the four shorter works from Op. 119, which he plays with depth, passion and sensitivity.

Kevin Sutton


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