Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Concerto in G minor, Op 33 (1876/1883) [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
HYPERION CDA68099 [73:12]

I have been waiting for this CD because I attended one of the concerts at which the Dvořák concerto was performed and recorded: I reviewed the performance on 18 March 2015 for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard. Though Seen and Heard was not represented at any of the Birmingham performances of the Schumann concerto from which the present recording is taken I see that my colleague, Paul Corfield Godfrey reviewed a performance that Hough and Nelsons gave in Cardiff on 28 November 2014.

The Dvořák is placed first on the disc but since the performance of the Schumann concerto was completely new to me it was to that recording that I turned first. The first movement has plenty of drive and romantic ardour. Nelsons sets this tone after the soloist’s initial flourish and, when he returns to the fray, Hough is on the same wavelength. Although the romantic impetuosity of the music is well served I liked just as much - indeed perhaps even more – the slow, reflective musing in mid-movement (4:50-6:25). As well as poetic playing from Hough there’s some very pleasing woodwind work; the contribution of the CBSO’s principal clarinettist, Oliver Janes, gives particular pleasure. This movement features outstanding Schumann playing from Hough, not least in the substantial cadenza (12:25-14:43). He receives splendid support from Nelsons and the orchestra.

The Intermezzo is elegant and refined. In addition to Hough’s fine work one feature that caught my attention was the yearning tone of the CBSO’s cello section in several passages. Right at the very end the hushed playing that Nelsons gets from the strings is memorable. The vivacious finale gets off to a fine start, the dancing rhythms strongly projected. This is a happy movement and that’s just how it comes across here in a performance that’s full of vigour and commitment. I enjoyed this account of the concerto very much.

Schumann’s concerto is a staple of the repertoire but that could scarcely be said of Dvořák’s Piano Concerto. It was composed in the space of two months during 1876, though after the first performance Dvořák revised it quite heavily – the solo part in particular – before publication in 1883. The concerto, in its original form at least, thus comes between the Fifth Symphony (1875) and the Sixth Symphony (1880). It has never attained the popularity of the A minor Violin Concerto (1879-80), still less the fame of the great B minor Cello Concerto (1894-5). The notes accompanying this CD are by the cellist, Stephen Isserlis, and he suggests that a reason for the relative neglect of the Piano Concerto is that there are issues with the solo part, which is not very pianistic – Dvořák was no pianist. As Isserlis puts it, “it is hideously difficult to play yet must sound effortless – the exact opposite of the virtuoso’s dream!” As a result, after the composer’s death a well-meaning pianist revised the solo part and it was not until Sviatoslav Richter took up the work that the original version regained currency. Stephen Hough, needless to say, opts for the original version.

The first of the three movements plays for just over 20 minutes in this performance – nearly half the length of the entire work. Nelsons unfolds the introduction most persuasively – there’s a Brahmsian feel at times but Dvořák’s own voice and style is soon readily apparent. Throughout the first movement there’s a great deal of animation in the orchestral accompaniment while Hough himself projects the music with no little verve. The recording places the piano firmly, though not excessively, in the foreground although this is not done to the detriment of the accompaniment. The solo part may be full of technical difficulties – I’m sure it is – but you wouldn’t think so. The cadenza (17:02-18:27) starts in a very dramatic vein but eventually winds down into a more tranquil character. As I said, this is a long movement but I wasn’t conscious of that while listening to this performance.

The slow movement opens with a horn solo which, as Stephen Isserlis observes, anticipates the Ninth Symphony. At first the music is very tranquil but a little rhythmic figure, first encountered in these opening pages, provides the springboard for a livelier second subject. In fact there’s quite a bit of fire in the middle of the movement but eventually it relapses into the tranquillity with which we began. The soloist launches the finale with a vigorous dance. I like Isserlis’s description of the main theme which he characterises as “a twisting, turning dervish of a melody that has its roots deep in Czech soil”. For the most part the music is genial and vigorous though there are some lyrical digressions along the way. The present performance is an unbuttoned one and the high spirits culminate in a barnstorming finish.

I doubt if this concerto will ever rival the popularity of the Cello Concerto. I don’t think the difficulties of the solo part will deter today’s virtuosos – Stephen Hough, for one, is clearly undeterred. However, the melodic material, though attractive, is nowhere near as memorable as that of the Cello Concerto. I recognise that the Cello Concerto’s themes may be more memorable simply because one has had more opportunities to hear them but I don’t think that’s the whole story. Having said that, the Piano Concerto is by no means a poor piece. I freely admit that while I went to Birmingham that March evening last year drawn by the prospect of hearing Andris Nelsons in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony – and what a performance that was; such a shame it too was not recorded. However, I enjoyed the Dvořák concerto that evening and I’ve enjoyed revisiting the performance through this fine new recording. There’s no doubt that the present performers make a very strong case for the work, which is never dull in their hands.

There is no applause after either concerto and during the performances I could detect no intrusive audience noise. The recorded sound is good in both cases and Stephen Isserlis contributes insightful notes.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan
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