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