Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series is something of a milestone in recorded music. Encompassing works by both obscure and well-known composers - Volume 50 is dedicated to Tchaikovsky - this enterprising project seldom fails to please. Inevitably, given the range of music on offer, some of it isn’t particularly memorable, although the presence of stellar soloists - Nikolai Demidenko, Stephen Hough and Marc-André Hamelin among them - guarantees some fabulous music-making. Factor in good recordings and commendably detailed booklet notes and it’s not hard to see why this series has done so well.
The composer, conductor and pianist Carl Gottfried Wilhelm Taubert spent much of his life in Berlin, where he worked with the city’s Royal Opera and court orchestra. And although he might seem rather obscure now, he produced four symphonies, six operas, various choral and chamber works and hundreds of songs The first piano concerto, dedicated to his piano teacher Ludwig Berger, opens with a grave, horn-led tune, followed by some scintillating passages for the piano. Yes, there are echoes of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto in some of the grander tuttis, but there’s also a freshness and clarity of utterance that is most appealing.
Howard Shelley, who plays and conducts, handles the effervescent writing with his usual aplomb, the Tasmanian band - a little untidy at times - sounding suitably virile in Taubert’s noble perorations. But it’s the quieter music of the Andante that really catches the ear. Perhaps one could best characterise the mood here as one of restrained ardour, Shelley articulating the long, flowing melodies and little dance-like episodes with great precision and elegance. Perspectives are fine, the piano warm and detailed, the orchestra bold but not overbearing. The latter comes into its own in the turbulent Allegro, where at the start soloist and band are locked in combat. I’d suggest Taubert’s piano writing is more accomplished than that for the orchestra, but when the music trips off the page with such ease and good humour it seems churlish to complain.
Shelley seems ideal for this music, his fluency and flair adding much sparkle and wit to Taubert’s ear-tickling tunes. Those gorgeous Romantic horns open the second concerto as well, the pianist rhapsodising most beautifully in return. This really is pellucid playing, and it’s all so elegantly phrased and sprung as well. Just listen to the passage that begins at 4:00, the gentle flutter of notes subsiding most atmospherically into near silence. It’s a genuine goose-bump moment, and one of many you’ll hear in this piece. And surely that tune at 5:10 is reminiscent of Mozart’s deliciously mobile Rondo alla turca?
For all its felicities I do feel the latter half of this Andante is a little too rhetorical for its own good, although there are moments of genuine charm and wistfulness in amongst the note-spinning. What isn’t in doubt, though, is Taubert’s winning sense of rhythm, which Shelley articulates so well. And to cap it all the movement has a lovely, reposeful conclusion. The ensuing Andantino pulses with energy, the whole driven by the dynamo that is Shelley’s playing. Again, one might feel that the orchestration is a little bluff at times, but then the focus is very definitely on the soloist here. The band is more active in the final - rather Beethovenian - Allegro. Appropriately, Shelley responds with sinew and strength, the Tasmanian horns glowing discreetly in the distance. Really, it’s hard not to respond positively to this music, especially when it’s despatched with such brio.
Taubert’s contemporary Jacob Rosenhain was something of a piano prodigy, making his debut at the age of 11. As a composer he was quite prolific, yet he seems to have made more of an impact in the salons of Paris, where he lived for 45 years. On first acquaintance this D minor concerto seems almost Brahmsian in its trenchancy and sweep. Only when the piano appears is there a mild sense of disappointment, for there’s little of the spontaneity and charm one hears in the Taubert concertos. There’s also a somewhat uneasy mix of virtuosity and gravitas here, the orchestral tuttis a little too rough and imposing for my tastes. Indeed, there’s not much subtlety - or suppleness - in evidence, and some may feel that even in its grander moments the piece remains curiously unsatisfying and opaque.
As always, Shelley is at his most persuasive and the Tasmanians respond well to his direction, the timps crisp, the lower strings warm and well blended. But without wishing to be too unkind, it all sounds sub-Brahmsian; and although the central Andante does have some melting, inward moments there simply aren’t enough of them. As for the orchestral interjections, they seem more dutiful than inspiring, and that really sums up my response to this score as a whole. Alas, not even a mercurial Presto - the pianist in blistering form - can save this uneven and elusive work. A pity, given the good intentions of all concerned.
So, a rather underwhelming end to an otherwise admirable collection. Shelley is the real star here, especially in the Taubert concertos, and those performances alone make this a must-buy for inquisitive listeners and pianophiles alike.
Romantic Piano Concerto review pages