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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. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26, 27, 29 November 2014 (Schumann); 17-19 March 2015 (Dvořák)
HYPERION CDA68099 [73:12]

No special pleading is needed for Schumann’s Piano Concerto. The case to be made for the Dvořák Piano Concerto is more problematic. The CD catalogues tell the story. Arkiv currently lists 35 recordings of the latter; the Schumann is available in 192 versions. In both cases there will be some repetition and re-packaging. However, as a rule of thumb, Dvořák is not as popular. Putting this into context, there are 107 CDs available of his Cello Concerto and 65 of his Violin Concerto in A minor. On the other hand — and perhaps depressingly — coming nearer to home, Parry’s Piano Concerto, written at about the same time as the Dvořák, is represented by a single recording by Piers Lane on Hyperion CDA66820.

Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor was composed quickly during August and September 1876, and was given its first performance at Prague on 24 August 1878. It was revised before publication in 1883. There is evidence that Dvořák struggled with the piano part. Many sketches, crossings-out and second thoughts exist in the holograph. The liner-notes for this disc point out that the work has been ‘all too often criticised for its supposedly ungrateful piano writing.’ Much of this criticism centred on the fact that the work was not the usual ‘tour de force’ between soloist and orchestra that was demanded by the publisher. It was more of a ‘symphonic concerto’. The piano part is seemingly ‘anything but pianistic’, is ‘hideously difficult to play’ and yet must sound ‘effortless’. This sense of being ‘effortless’ was not popular with virtuoso pianists at that time. The piano part was subsequently rewritten after Dvořák’s death by Vilém Kurz (1872-1945). That account became the standard for performance, although I understand that the pianist Rudolf Firkušný played both versions. Sviatoslav Richter ‘re-discovered’ the original in 1975 and since that time it has become more popular with soloists.

It is not a work with which I am particularly familiar. However, listening to Stephen Hough one is conscious of a concerto that is well-balanced, containing some beautiful melodies and never lacking in interest. Whatever the problems with Dvořák’s original piano writing are, it is not obvious in this present recording.

Robert Schumann wrote to Clara Wieck that ‘I cannot write a concerto for virtuosi; I must think of something else’ he claimed that it ‘was something between a concerto, a symphony and a sonata’. Liszt referred to it as a ‘concerto without piano’: he was sufficiently unimpressed to remove it from his repertory.

The Concerto in A minor was not Schumann’s first attempt at writing for this genre: there are at least three others, none of which was completed. The precursor of this present concerto was a Phantasie for piano and orchestra (1841) which was later expanded into the present three-movement work at his wife’s behest. It was completed in 1845. Clara Wieck was to give the first performance at a Gewandhaus Concert on 1 January 1846: the conductor was Ferdinand Hiller.

Needless to say, this Concerto is one of the high-points of the romantic piano concerto. So much so, that it is almost a cliché to remind readers that Edvard Grieg used this work as a model for his own masterpiece, even using the same key and similar opening flourish.

The strategy for playing Schumann’s concerto is to remember not to be ‘overly virtuosic’. The piano and the orchestra fuse together rather than being continually at odds with each other. This is a romantic, poetical work, rather than a bravura concerto. Clearly, it is not without technical and interpretive difficulties. Unlike the Dvořák, there is no doubt about the pianism of the solo part. Stephen Hough brings magic to these pages, especially the delicious intermezzo where the dialogue between orchestra and soloist is perfectly stated. The soloist comes to the fore in the final movement as the piano presents melodies as a ‘sparkling web’ around the orchestral accompaniment. It is surely one of Robert Schumann’s greatest works; certainly it is one of his ‘sunniest’.

The detailed liner-notes for this disc are by Stephen Isserlis. Its sound quality is excellent as is to be expected from Hyperion. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra provide an ideal accompaniment in both concertos: the conductor Andris Nelsons makes his debut for Hyperion.

I have never really ‘got into’ the Dvořák Concerto, so I will happily make Stephen Hough my current choice. It is an impressive and enjoyable performance.

My preferred recording of the Schumann has long been Stephen Kovacevich with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis. This is simply because this was the version that I first discovered in the early 1970s. Over the years I have had this recording on LP, cassette and CD. In spite of this long-standing preference, I have no reservations about Stephen Hough and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and look forward to enjoying their recordings many times.

John France
Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ John Quinn



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