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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33 (1876) [40:49]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 (1845) [32:21]
Stephen Hough (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 26, 27 & 29 November 2014 (Schumann), 17-19 March 2015 (Dvořák), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK
Reviewed as a 24/96 Studio Master
Pdf booklet included
HYPERION CDA68099 [73:10]

The last time I heard Stephen Hough and this orchestra making music together was on their splendid Saint-Saëns set with Sakari Oramo, recorded in 2000 (review). My experience of Andris Nelsons and the CBSO is less happy; their Orfeo account of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony was overblown and, worst of all, the sound distorts in the climaxes (review). Nelsons’ tenure as the orchestra’s principal conductor ended with the 2014-2015 season, when these recordings were made.

Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor has never been as popular as those he wrote for violin and cello. I doubt that will change any time soon, although there are a few good recordings of it in the catalogue. The best known is probably the EMI-Warner one with those two great eccentrics, Sviatoslav Richter and Carlos Kleiber. Among more recent accounts is Martin Helmchen’s with Marc Albrecht and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Pentatone). Handily coupled with the Schumann concerto that’s my comparative recording here.

Perhaps one of the reasons why the Dvořák concerto never caught on is that the composer had misgivings about it from the start. He never felt it was a virtuoso piece, and it was left to the Czech pianist and pedagogue Vilém Kurz (1872-1945) to rework the piano part. The resulting edition, in use for nearly a century, fell out of favour thanks to Richter’s support for Dvořák's original score. That’s the version Hough uses here; Helmchen does too, albeit with minimal reversions to Kurz.

In his liner-notes to the Hyperion issue cellist Steven Isserlis says it’s a mystery that this concerto isn’t played more often, but minutes into Hough’s performance and the puzzle is solved. Despite the pianist's best efforts this is not a work that communicates as readily as one would like. There’s no doubting the fiendish demands of the piece - Hough is well up to those - and yet it still sounds so earthbound. That impression is reinforced by Nelsons’ seemingly dutiful accompaniment. As for the sound it’s bright, close and somewhat lacking in depth. In short, it’s a performance that left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

Helmchen isn’t at his best in this concerto either. However, he and Albrecht are surprisingly subtle and varied in their approach, with a strong sense of shape and purpose that I don’t hear with Hough and Nelsons. There’s also a tonal/rhythmic sophistication here, and that’s enhanced by Pentatone’s warm, detailed and much more congenial sound. That’s particularly true of Helmchen’s piano, which is better balanced and sounds more natural. As for the well-blended Strasbourg orchestra they play with commendable energy and character.

Hough is a wonderful musician whose recordings have given me immense pleasure over the years, so I had high hopes for his Dvořák. Perhaps it’s one of those performances that worked better in the hall than it does on record; John Quinn’s enthusiastic review of the concert suggests as much. That might have been true of Hough and Nelsons in the Schumann as well, but as Paul Corfield Godfrey noted in his review of their Cardiff outing the performance 'persistently refused to take wing'. And so it is in Birmingham. I sense the same lack of colour, rhythmic flair and well-defined contours that so undermines their Dvořák. As a performance it’s certainly exciting, but in every other respect it’s comfortably outclassed by the classic Stephen Kovacevich/Sir Colin Davis version (Philips).

I suppose what I miss most in Hough’s Schumann is that full-blown Romanticism, the thrilling surge and sweep that makes Kovacevich’s account so memorable. HIPPsters would probably baulk at such excess now, arguing that Schumann demands a leaner, more Classical approach. That’s exactly what Helmchen and Albrecht provide. There’s a tautness here, an inner poise, that looks more to Beethoven than it does to Brahms. Helmchen’s phrasing is a delight, and his control of dynamics and fine detail is exemplary. Any caveats? The pedal action is very audible, and the orchestra can seem a tad recessed at times. Then again, that hardly matters when the performance is this good.

Those who want these two works on a single disc or download should waste no time acquiring the Helmchen. Even though he makes a good case for the Dvořák I’m still not convinced it’s a neglected masterpiece. His superbly proportioned Schumann is a revelation, though. Alas, in such company Hough and Nelsons are found sorely wanting.

I really wanted to like this one; a rare misstep for Hough and Hyperion both.

Dan Morgan



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