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alternatively Crotchet


Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major (1881) [51:01]
Stephen Hough (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
No recording details [1990]
VIRGIN CLASSICS 3913662 [51:01]
Experience Classicsonline

Virgin Classics has embarked on a large reissue programme of which this forms part. Some are simply repackaged with cursory notes, as here, whilst others sport the money-saving notes and have undergone a change of coupling. A record company can’t really win with this release. It only has the B flat major concerto, which some will feel short measure; but if the company shoehorns some coupling, critics will doubtless note its irrelevance, incongruity, or whatever.

We have what we have, then, and it’s Hough’s recording with Andrew Davis. There are no recording locations or dates but I infer that it was a recorded in 1990. Nearly twenty years later I daresay Hough would do some things differently, but then a recording is, as executant musicians invariably note, a crudely captured moment made during their long professional lives.

I sense the rationale of the performance is an attempt to reconcile the grandiose self-assertive rhetoric of part of it with the intimate and delicate introversion of its other self. The trouble, for me at least, is that it sounds like two performances struggling to sound compatible. It opens in rather toughly foursquare fashion, oddly over-ruminative. Davis works well with Hough, seconding his view of the work and accommodating the orchestral fabric appropriately, though I don’t think it could be argued that the BBC Orchestra covers itself with glory. Hough is at pains to stress little moments of lyric reprieve in the first movement but the emergent feeling is one of a lack of real dynamism. The two aspects are not reconciled; consequently the “tone” of the performance remains elusive.

There’s no doubting some fine aspects of the playing – the end of the first movement is well caught by the microphone and not bathed in a triumphant blur as it all too often can be; piano lines are well balanced. Hough plays with sonorous rounded tone in the more cantabile sections, alternating with a harder, more brittle palette when needed. There are certainly some highly charged and poetic moments in the Scherzo. And Tim Hugh’s cello solo in the slow movement possesses a reserved nobility, though it’s not consistently inspired form beginning to end. The finale unfortunately is rather heavy and monochromatic. The kind of excitement, vitality and humour that coursed through, say, Rubinstein’s traversal of the work is not evident in the duller contributions on offer here.

Given the foregoing this is really not a contender. I appreciate that the Gilels/Jochum DG is a tried and trusted critical recommendation but it holds orchestral, intellectual, poetic and digital matters in perfect balance, qualities that this present reissue cannot begin to approach.

Jonathan Woolf


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