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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat Major, Op.83 (1881) [51:01]
Stephen Hough (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
rec. no information given. 1990. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 00946 391366 2 9 [51:01]

Stephen Hough is one of the most fascinating, sensitive and technically brilliant pianists of the present day. He made this recording seventeen years ago, and although it points to the artist he has now become, the performance is ultimately unsatisfying. Hough certainly has the measure of Brahms' towering score. He has no difficulties with the notes. There is, however, a distinct lack of atmosphere. 

Andrew Davis must take much of the blame for this. He has a creamy sounding BBC Symphony Orchestra under his baton, but sets sluggish tempi and wallows in the score, to the point where the commentary from horns and winds becomes perfunctory and string playing seems uninterested. Though Hough strikes his keys well, even he succumbs at times to this almost lackadaisical approach in the first movement. What should be a great momentum-building passage at about 8:00 sounds like a hard slog. There are moments of magic, like the reflective interplay between piano and winds at about 5:20 and the dialogue between keyboard and strings at about 11:00. However, the overall arc of the first movement lacks tension. 

The BBCSO improves in the second movement, as they seem to follow Hough rather than Davis, but the moment Hough stops playing, momentum dissipates. Hough brings out some powerful detail in the left hand that sometimes slips by in other accounts, but the lovely poetic passage for piano solo at about 5:35 is too precious and does not seem to fit with what comes before or what follows. 

Tim Hugh, latterly principal cello of the London Symphony Orchestra, is the lead cellist on this recording. He shapes the beautiful cello melody that opens the third movement with affection, but seems a little lacking in sensitivity. The orchestra as a whole, appears to be on autopilot as the movement opens. The tempo is fine, but there is little repose in the lead up to Hough's first entry. The contrast with the hushed sounds conjured by Hough when he re-enters is striking.

The finale scampers along well enough, but has little of the sense of fun that you get from, say, Kovacevich.

Interpretatively this account seems unfinished. I get the sense that Hough at this stage was still forming his view of the score. His account is not without power, but he stops short of the barnstorming approach of Richter (RCA 60860-2 – not his awful remake for EMI). There is poetry here too, but neither in the Gilels mould (Deutsche Grammophon) nor the Kovacevich (Philips or EMI). He is thoughtful, but does not probe as deeply as Brendel (Philips). If he were to record this concerto again now, it would almost certainly be a very different performance. Davis seems uninvolved and although the orchestra play the notes well, they sound unguided. 

Liner notes are next to non-existent and the disc's playing time of 51:01 is ungenerous. Virgin's sonics are decent, if a little reverberant.

Admirers of Stephen Hough may want this disc for its incidental pleasures, but the performance as a whole does not match the great ones in the catalogue, only a few of which are mentioned above.

If you want a new recording of this concerto to add to your collection, you should look to the Nelson Freire and Chailly on Decca, a recording of equally inspired partners with a single interpretative vision of this great concerto and its predecessor, the Op.15. 

Tim Perry 




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