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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, op.102 [33:39]
Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.15 [50:16]
Jiří Vodička (violin), Jan Páleniček (cello), Jitka Čechová (piano)
Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra/Ondřey Kukal
rec. Feb and Nov 2013, Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra Hall
TRIART TR005 [33:09 + 50:16]

Hradec Králové is a Czech city fifty or so miles East of Prague. Its orchestra, under Ondřey Kukal, combines in these two Brahms concertos with three talented Czech instrumentalists. The violinist Jiří Vodička is just twenty-six, yet already has an impressive career behind him. Cellist Jan Páleniček is a more established player, pupil of Tortelier, and a passionate advocate of Martinů. Jitka Čechová is possibly best known for chamber music performances and recordings, in her role as pianist of the Smetana Trio.
 
The musical credentials of the soloists, then, are excellent. I always expect a sure stylistic sense from Czech musicians in core works such as these. So let me say right away, these are admirable, well prepared performances, fully worthy of these masterpieces. Yet this is, to say the least, a highly competitive area, and each concerto boasts many great recorded versions, both recent and from further back.
 
To take the Double Concerto first; the wonderful opening allows each soloist to become established as an individual, the cello gruffly defiant (at first), the violin more sweetly lyrical. Much of what follows is about expanding those initial impressions, and both Vodička and Páleniček have the technical and emotional range to do justice to the varying moods. They share the enjoyment of those moments of intentional roughness, but equally, each player – cellist in the first half of the movement, violinist in the recapitulation – relishes the gloriously lyrical second theme. One of the crucial passages is the magical return to the main theme after the development, and that is handled so well here. The mysterious shifts of key make their effect, but with no undue slowing down as you sometimes hear. Momentum is vital in this powerful opening movement, and these soloists provide it. The Andante features more superb work from the soloists. After the rather formal opening in the wind, the richly expressive main theme is poured out with luxuriant tone, and all the beauties of the movement summon intense responses from these two fine artists. Then the final Vivace, with its earthy rondo theme, is characterised strongly, with plenty of humour along the way.
 
Brahms had very little time for female pianists, and is said to have designed the piano part of the second concerto specifically so that no woman would be able to play it. Perhaps too much has been made of Brahms’s supposed misogyny – he enthusiastically praised performances of both concertos by Marie Baumayer - and there are plenty of women around today able to cope manfully (as it were) with Brahms’s writing for the instrument. Jitka Čechová is emphatically one such; I mentioned her qualities as a chamber musician above, and she uses that sensitivity to wonderful effect in her playing of this concerto. There is discipline and a lack of gratuitous exaggeration in her phrasing. Yet she is well up to the challenge of the big moments – of which there are many. To cite one, the development section of the opening Maestoso begins with a terrifying passage in fortissimo octaves for both hands. Like me, you may have heard live performances where pianists come hopelessly adrift here. Čechová does not – she is always in control, and shapes the music so well, allowing the often quite surprising harmonic details and inner parts to register effortlessly. Her playing of the Adagio – surely one of Brahms’s most profound creations – is memorably beautiful; intimate yet poised, never hurried but always purposeful.
 
Brahms heads his finale ‘Vivace non troppo’ – ‘lively but not too much so’. Cautious by nature, Brahms was very fond of ‘non troppo’. In effect, the player must accentuate the rhythmic energy of the main theme, but not allow the basic tempo to get too fast. Again, Čechová judges things perfectly, bringing a delicacy to the softer moments which provides valuable contrast in this bustling movement.
 
Distinguished performances from all these Czech soloists, then; so where does this 2CD album stand in relation to the other fine performances on disc? As I’ve indicated, the solo playing is of the highest calibre; but the orchestra has a hugely important role too, and it is that aspect which holds these versions back from being amongst the very best available. The Hradec Králové Philharmonic is a good orchestra, more than competent, and their conductor, Ondřey Kukal, is an alert and sympathetic accompanist. Yet their violin tone is rather thin, often lacking in warmth, so that moments — in the Piano Concerto — such as where the strings take over the second subject from the piano in the first movement, or the sudden impassioned outburst in the otherwise placid Adagio, just don’t have enough power and intensity. It’s possible that they aren’t helped by the recording; the woodwind and brass seem to suffer too, their solos often lacking presence. This is certainly the case in the all-important horn fanfares in the first movement of the Piano Concerto and the woodwind details in the finale of the Double Concerto. Ironically, returning to the Piano Concerto, the one place in the finale where you want the strings to be really quiet, in the scampering fugue begun by the seconds, they are too loud. Combined with Kukal’s holding back of the tempo, this is a really disappointing moment in a movement where, otherwise, they seem to get caught up in the excitement generated by the soloist.
 
Listening to Stephen Hough’s fine CDs of the piano concertos, I felt those recordings suffered from the same drawback – the orchestral playing didn’t quite match the splendour of Hough’s playing. Listen to Clifford Curzon’s extraordinary 1962 version, and you can feel the searing intensity of the LSO under George Szell. Interestingly, the same conductor secures similar involvement this time from the Cleveland Orchestra, in one of the outstanding versions of the Double Concerto, with Oistrakh and Rostropovich as the soloists.
 
I don’t want to make too much of these reservations; these Czech performances are emphatically well worth hearing, and it is a coupling that many buyers will find tempting.
 
Gwyn Parry-Jones

Masterwork Index: Double concerto ~~ Piano concerto 1