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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 [47:30]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Burleske in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra [19:06]
Joseph Moog (piano)
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie/Nicholas Milton
rec. 2016, Großer Sendesaal des SR, Saarbrücken
ONYX 4169 [66:39]

This isn't the first time Brahms's Second Piano Concerto has been paired with Strauss's Burleske. They appeared some years ago on a Sony disc in performances by Rudolf Serkin and Eugene Ormandy, and I've always thought the two make amiable companions.

The description of Brahms's Second Piano Concerto as ‘a symphony with piano obbligato' gives an indication of the massive proportions and expansive architectural design of this mighty edifice. It's cast in four movements rather than the conventional three that typified the Classical and Romantic period. The second movement ‘allegro appassionato’ seems to be the interloper, modestly described by the composer as ‘a tiny wisp of a scherzo’. Moog faces some tough competition, principally from the likes of Richter, Gilels, Pollini and Fleisher. He readily takes up the gauntlet and renders a reading not only of drama, passion and potency but gifts the more lyrical moments with sufficient tenderness and poetry. The second movement, especially, is successful for its rhythmic bite and audacity, aided by Minton's alert direction. The cello solo in the radiant slow movement is tender and ardent and superbly profiled in the mix. Throughout the movement there's a hypnotic intimacy, not always achieved in performances, but here it tugs at the heart-strings. The affable finale is light on its feet, animated, genial and lithe, setting the seal on a stylish and virile reading of freshness and spontaneity. I can certainly buy into Moog’s vision.
I'm very fond of Strauss's Burleske since I first encountered it discussed and played on a film by Glenn Gould some years ago. It's a spectacular showpiece and, although relatively lightweight, it works as an ideal foil to the more grandiose Brahms. It's the work of a young man; Strauss was twenty-one when he composed it in 1885. Hans von Bülow, its dedicatee, declared it unplayable at the time. Strauss alternates dazzling bravura with dreamy, lyrical moments.  The fortune of the piece is dependent on the performer conveying the humour, wit and mercurial character of the music, set against passages of unalloyed romanticism.  Moog's high octane virtuosity and stylish eloquence don't disappoint. It was interesting doing a head to head with the Hélène Grimaud version on Erato, which she set down with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under David Zinman in 1995. I can hardly believe it's over twenty years since its release, and I've always rated it very highly. Yet, side by side with this new recording, it pales in comparison. Grimaud takes three minutes longer, and Moog’s speedier tempo gives the reading more drive, fire and passion. Added to that, the Erato version's orchestral sound lacks the warmth of this newcomer, with Grimaud's piano sounding hard-edged in comparison.

Nicholas Milton and the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie offer finely realised support. The commodious acoustic generously accommodates the sumptuous, beefy orchestration of these works well. I both welcome the wealth of orchestral detail, and the satisfying balance between soloist and players; the Onyx engineers have done a sterling job. Moog's resonant and imposing tone serves the Brahms Concerto to perfection, and I hope he will direct his attentions to the First Concerto in the not-too-distant future.

Stephen Greenbank  



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