are not Stephen Hough’s first recordings of the Brahms concertos: he
recorded both of them for Virgin Classics with the BBC Symphony
Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis around 1989/1990. I haven’t heard those
performances but the recording of the Second Concerto received a rather
muted welcome here from Tim Perry, largely on account of what he judged
to be lacklustre conducting by Davis (review). Jonathan Woolf was similarly disappointed (review).
I hope if either of them gets the opportunity to hear this new account
of the concerto they will feel it merits higher praise; I rather think
First we must consider the
new recording of the D minor concerto. Things get off to an auspicious
start: the orchestral opening is fiery, the playing muscular and
strongly profiled. There’s a slightly grainy sound to the strings - I
don’t say that in a negative way - and all in all Mark Wigglesworth and
his players convey the impression that the music is, in annotator Jan
Swafford’s words, ‘massive and dramatic’. Stephen Hough, when he joins
them, is on the same wavelength. Throughout this huge, taxing movement
there’s an abundance of sinewy strength in both the piano playing and
the contribution of the orchestra. Yet the reflective side of the music
is in no way underplayed; that’s excellently done too. All in all I
felt that all the facets of Brahms’s movement are well explored here.
Jan Swafford, author of a fine biography of the composer, reminds us
that Brahms told Clara Schumann that the second movement was ‘a tender
portrait’ of her. It’s beautifully done here with the poetic side of
Hough’s pianism well to the fore. He’s impressive too in the more
ardent stretches of music and once again one has the distinct feeling
of soloist and conductor on the same wavelength. In the rondo finale
Swafford states that Brahms followed the time-honoured practice that a
concerto finale should be ‘light, brilliant and vivacious rather than
ponderous’. The movement is definitely not ponderous but this is an
occasion when Brahms’s high spirits were on the serious side or, at
least, purposeful. Hough rises completely to the virtuoso demands of
the piano writing - as he has throughout the concerto - offering much
dexterous playing. Once again you feel that Wigglesworth and his
players are with him every step of the way. The final pages are very
exciting, bringing a notable reading of this concerto to a fine
The D minor concerto was the product of a great deal of compositional
labouring by Brahms; it took him five years to complete. By contrast
the B flat concerto is a work written when he was at the height of his
powers. The first movement is scarcely less imposing and ambitious in
terms of scale than the corresponding movement in the D minor concerto
- in these performances the first movement of the D minor concerto
plays for 22:53, the first movement of its companion takes 18:19.
However, where so much of the earlier concerto’s opening movement was
turbulent in nature here we have a much more lyrical - and, dare one
say, confident - spirit. Jan Swafford very rightly points out that the
nature of the piano part is constantly changing, ‘its music moving from
long unaccompanied solos to lacy filigree accompanying the orchestra.’
Whatever Brahms asks of him Stephen Hough achieves in a most satisfying
and accomplished fashion, his playing responsive to all the nuances of
the score. There may be less turmoil in evidence here than was the case
with the D minor work but the piano part is still a major test of
pianistic strength and stamina. It’s also demanding on the conductor
and orchestra but all involved pass Brahms’s tests with flying colours.
It’s perhaps significant that the scherzo is in D minor for in some
ways we’re plunged back into the emotional world of the earlier
concerto in this dark, surging movement. In a powerful performance
Stephen Hough invests the music with great energy and no little
passion. He and Wigglesworth collaborate in a tremendous performance.
Wigglesworth sets quite a flowing tempo for the gorgeous third
movement; his pace is a little faster than I can recall hearing on disc
before and overall he and Hough take 11:52 whereas in the justly
renowned Gilels/Jochum performance (DG, 1972) the movement plays for
14:02 - and never seems a second too long. But the tempo marking is
so I think the pace in this present performance is fully justified -
and it works. The lovely cello solo is played very well indeed by
Marcus Pouget though I think that Ottomar Borwitzky (for Jochum) had a
slightly richer tone. Here we have a wonderful performance that is
detailed and romantic. The exquisite transition back to the cello solo
with which we began (6:11 - 8:10), always a touchstone for me, is
magical. The music of the finale is light and good humoured and these
performers clearly enjoy it. There’s wit and grace in Hough’s playing
and the orchestra match him. This, then, is another highly successful
performance, just like its companion on the other disc.
As a look at our Masterworks Index
for either concerto will confirm, there is an abundance of top quality
recordings of each in the catalogue. I bought the Emil Gilels set when
it first came out on LP and in its CD incarnation it continues to be a
cornerstone of my collection (review). Curzon and Szell take some beating in the D minor concert (review); it’s interesting that they’re significantly more expansive than Hough/Wigglesworth in the Adagio.
I also greatly admire the readings of both works from two very
different pianists: Solomon (Testament) and Stephen Kovacevich (EMI).
Other readers will have their own personal favourites, I’m sure.
However, this new Hyperion set can be ranked with the very best. The
pianism is of the highest order, both technically and intellectually,
while Stephen Hough seems to have found an ideal collaborator in Mark
Wigglesworth, who here makes his Hyperion debut. The performances have
been captured in very good sound by engineer Simon Eadon and producer
Andrew Keener while the booklet essay by Jan Swafford is succinct and
valuable. Hyperion are offering these recordings as a
two-for-the-price-of-one set, which increases the attraction. I shall
continue to listen with great pleasure to all the recordings mentioned
in the previous paragraph - and some others besides - but I know I’ll
also be returning often to this very fine set. These performances now
join the select list of reference recordings for both concertos.
And another review
It is important to realise that currently (December 2013) there are
some 152 recordings of Brahms’ D minor piano concerto and 176 versions
of the B flat in the Arkiv database. The list of pianists, conductors
and orchestras is a veritable checklist of performers from the past
seventy years. It seems impossible to mention all of them, but
important releases must include Emil Gilels, Wilhelm Kempff, Stephen
Kovacevich and Vladimir Horowitz. My favourite is Clifford Curzon with
the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch. This dates
from 1960-61 for the Second Concerto and George Szell and the London
Symphony Orchestra in the First. These were the first recordings of the
two concertos that I heard back in the early seventies and I have stuck
with them through the years. Fortunately, they are available on CD.
Stephen Hough’s new recording of both concertos on Hyperion has
impressed me in every way. Whilst I cannot say they have usurped Curzon
- that is a historical thing - they will be my preferred modern version
of these great and diverse works.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor was Brahms’ first essay in concerto
form. The work began life in 1853 as a sonata for two pianos which was
then partially rewritten as a symphony. The first movement of this
latter work was incorporated into the concerto which was eventually
completed in 1858.
The D minor concerto is in the ‘classical’ three movements. The
remarkable thing is the relationship between the soloist and orchestra:
the music to a large extent fuses the piano into the fabric of the
whole orchestral texture.
The opening movement is deemed to be Brahms’ reflection on the tragedy
of Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide. The older composer had recently
tried to drown himself and had been declared insane. The ‘adagio’ is a
‘tender portrait’ written for Clara Schumann. Brahms had fallen in love
with her and remained so for the rest of his life. The finale of the D
minor concerto is a ‘traditional’ rondo, full of drama and Gypsy song
which brings the work to a largely positive conclusion. The technical
requirements of this powerful and dramatic piece are tremendous: it is
surely one of the most difficult works in the genre.
It was first heard at Hanover with Brahms as soloist. Hardly a success,
the composer noted that it was a ‘splendid and decided fiasco’. Brahms
nevertheless had faith in his concerto and reckoned that someday it
would be liked.
The first sketches of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat were made in
the spring of 1878, shortly after he had returned home from Italy. It
was not until 1881 that he settled down to complete the score during
time spent at Pressbaum, near Vienna.
The work has been described - a little unfairly - by Eduard Hanslick as
being ‘a symphony with piano obbligato’. Perhaps it could be better
defined as a ‘symphony for piano and orchestra’? The work received its
premiere on 9 November 1881 with the composer as soloist. The Budapest
Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Alexander Erkel.
The Second Concerto differs from the usual model by having four
movements. It is the second movement which is the ‘interloper’. It has
been suggested that this could have been omitted. However, this is
passionate music that contrasts well with the relatively
straightforward opening ‘allegro non troppo’ in spite of Brahms, with
tongue in cheek, referring to it as a ‘tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo’.
Few would wish to cut this movement these days. The slow movement is
innovative. Brahms begins with a long cello melody which largely
dominates the opening pages of this ‘andante’: it is not until a third
of the way into the movement that the piano begins to get a grip on
things. The finale is once again a rondo that is light and untroubled
and is in complete contrast to the earlier movements.
As might be expected from Hyperion this is a striking release in every
manner. I was impressed, but hardly surprised, at the sound quality
which is excellent. The liner-notes give a good informative
introduction to both concertos. This is historical and descriptive
rather than technical. There are brief bios of Stephen Hough and Mark
Wigglesworth but not the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg. Information about
this orchestra can be found at their website which is in German.
I guess that there can be no ‘definitive’ performance of these two
great works. Pianists and conductors will always find new emphases and
hidden meanings. I cannot fault Hough’s playing: the balance between
the sheer virtuosity and the intimacy of this music is perfectly
stated. Each concerto has a different mood and palette of emotions.
Hough brings a special quality of reflection to these works which for
my taste gives a considerable added value. It is too easy to assume
that Brahms hid his sentiments under the guise of ‘classical
imperturbability’. The secret to playing the Brahms piano concertos
would seem to be gaining an equilibrium between ‘head and heart’.
Stephen Hough has achieved this considerable feat to a masterly degree.
Masterwork Index: Brahms piano concerto 1 ~~ Concerto 2