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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, op. 83 (1881) [49:29]
Piano Sonata No. 1 in C major, op. 1, (1852-3) [32:43]
Norman Krieger (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Philip Ryan Mann
rec. Studio 1, Abbey Road, London, 2014 (Concerto), Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, 2015 (Sonata).
DECCA 4814871 [80:14]

‘Symphony with piano obbligato’ is a good description of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.2, as it conveys its ambitious scale, musically and emotionally and the interdependence of orchestra and piano on an epic journey. This begins lyrically yet relatively unassumingly in this recording by Norman Krieger and Philip Ryan Mann: the opening horn solo is smooth, assured, a little abstract, a template for development. The piano at first soothingly echoes the latter parts of the horn’s phrases. The first surprise is when it launches into a cadenza you wouldn’t normally get till the end of a movement, at first turbulent but soon reflective and then powerful. Krieger reveals the piano as a complex personality. Mann responds full-bloodedly with the horn theme as a grand orchestral march. The violins propose a second theme, in D minor (tr. 1, 2:34) but this is rather shrugged off by a writhing quaver/semiquaver rest/semiquaver motif in all the strings and woodwind. In his second extended solo Krieger quells this agitation and then returns to a variant of the opening theme mixed with the triumphant feeling of the march. Here’s exciting playing. Orchestra and piano are now content to share phrases and complement one another. In his solos using the entire compass of the keyboard Krieger’s stunning playing gives the feel of orchestral sonorities and weight. I also enjoyed the virtuoso punch of the cross rhythms between left and right hand from 7:45. The horn’s recapitulation of its theme is smooth and has now earned the right to be stately, while Krieger equally enjoys the grand manner, after which piano and woodwind jubilantly topple over one another in cascades. Kreiger doesn’t get to play the first theme in full until the coda, so that’s a time of fulfilment.

I compared the 2013 recording by Stephen Hough with the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg/Mark Wigglesworth (Hyperion CDA67961). Wigglesworth gets quite a lush opening solo from the horn and, while I favour Mann’s plainer horn, I prefer Wigglesworth’s more soulful treatment of the violins’ second theme where he also brings greater dynamic contrast, though his writhing motif has less character than Mann’s. Hough’s opening cadenza moves from turbulence to reflection and then ecstasy, distinctively yet with a more considered quality than Krieger, whose presentation is more flowing. Hough and Wigglesworth bring more emotive interchange between piano and orchestra. Hough’s cross rhythms between left and right hand are as vigorous as Krieger’s while generally he brings out the bass register more heavily, really growling on occasion. His exchange of cascades with the woodwind is similarly heavier, preferring weight and contrast to Krieger/Mann’s excitement.

Brahms’ addition of a Scherzo second movement (tr. 2) makes the concerto four movements rather than the usual three and thus more symphonic, even more so when he wrote a rigorous one. Fast, taut and determined, its musical content is all derived from the first 4 seconds of the movement. In this movement Kreiger is the first presenter of the first theme and brings to its D minor a resolute forward thrust. He must, because of the downward tension of the motif in the lower strings from 0:04 and their offbeat accents from 0:07, firmly supplied by Mann who then makes the second theme on the strings (0:36) tellingly and beautifully reflective. That is derived from the rising motif of the movement’s opening notes and the strings’ earlier downward motif. The piano’s discourse, after acknowledging the second theme, insists on the original opening notes but, once the strings take these up, then contentedly mulls over the start of the second theme. Amazingly all these repetitions have a hypnotic quality and don’t bore. They’re burned into the listener’s consciousness by the only exact exposition repeat in this work. The development culminates in a ferocious orchestral tutti from Mann which melds into a triumphant D major Trio (4:49). The piano has a solo contribution which Krieger displays as a kind of free fantasy before he later concentrates more strictly on the Trio’s falling motif. Krieger and Mann show the whole movement to be packed with the fusion of motifs which brings a satisfying sense of progress to its energy.

Timing the Scherzo at 9:10, though only 30 seconds faster than Krieger/Mann, Hough/Wigglesworth are notably more urgent and fiery. Hough’s manner is more bludgeoning and grim. The strings’ second theme seems cast in a paler light and is less tranquil than Mann’s. Wigglesworth’s approach to the tutti before the Trio evolves convincingly but the Trio itself continues disciplined, without the joyous quality of Mann’s. Hough’s ‘fantasy’ solo has less air than Krieger’s but his second solo progresses with appreciable sensitivity.

The Andante slow movement (tr. 3) begins with the most extended solo not by piano, from cello. Returning to my obbligato reference, the piano never plays this theme as such yet its role in the movement is crucial. Mann achieves an atmosphere of reverie for the opening. Cushioned by the lower strings’ accompaniment, the cello is smooth, warm, assured yet also a touch self-effacing, but a sigh, marked as a sudden forte, almost involuntarily leaps out for a moment at 0:22, just as the theme seems to be coming to rest. Not until 2:39 does the piano enter, musing in empathy with the theme yet at some distance from it. Krieger achieves the delicate, roseate quality of this musing well but I’m less convinced by the more passionate turn of events next in the movement, almost as if neither Krieger nor Mann’s hearts are in this development. The tender heart of the movement and concerto, the Pił Adagio section from 6:36, is magically done, the piano marked molto espress joined by two clarinets ppp dolcissimo in a rapt stillness Rachmaninov later cultivated yet arguably never quite achieved as perfectly as here. The cello theme returns more emotively, its sigh now occurring thrice, but you feel that through the piano and clarinets’ earlier purgation it has earned the right. The piano adds a frilly background but the aching oboe in high register is closer to the cello’s heartrending. The cellist is the star of this movement and should have been credited.

Wigglesworth’s cellist is Marcus Pouget. He brings an evenly expressive singing tone but the sigh doesn’t really stand out. Wigglesworth, more sensitively than Mann, reveals the first violins’ soft, sweet entry when the cello repeats the theme and creates a golden warmth of orchestral texture. Hough’s appearance is more emotive than Krieger’s, finding a sadder vein in the music, and for me the passionate development is more convincingly distressed from Hough/Wigglesworth. Hough’s Pił Adagio, beautifully articulated, doesn’t quite have the poise of Krieger’s, neither are his accompanying clarinets as gorgeous. The cello return begins more emotively than before but then retreats somewhat as if into a shell. Hough’s frills are comelier than Krieger’s but Wigglesworth’s oboe’s union with the cello I find too cosy.

The finale is a holiday release, with Hungarian gypsy music underpinning it. Its first theme is first presented by Krieger and Mann as light and carefree, a tone to savour as it’s a rare one for Brahms. The second theme (tr. 4, 1:12), proposed in turn by woodwind and strings, is darker-grained with a wry edge, more worldly-wise with a touch of seediness. The piano brings it a companion (1:31), a quieter, yet cajoling, response and you realize it’s a moral caution when that pair of clarinets, so eloquent in the Pił Adagio of the previous movement, repeat it. Then the piano has the third theme (1:50), the catchiest and happiest of all, which Krieger displays with an engaging hint of abandon. The second theme returns, more civilized, but so do the clarinets to chasten it still further. The first theme is varied and goes into a dreamy haze, rather more successfully from Mann I felt than the later rather formal treatment from 3:37 of the tossing about of its folky dotted rhythms between violins on the one side and bassoons, violas and cellos on the other. Later still the second theme becomes more dreamy, but to stop you falling asleep Krieger’s piano brings to the first theme the skipping elation of the third.

How do Hough and Wigglesworth respond to these assorted truffles? Their first theme is smoother in its quietness with a later jubilation gradually revealed. This points up a general characteristic of the two accounts: Krieger/Mann favour living in the moment whereas Hough/Wigglesworth’s strength lies rather in setting the moment within the bigger picture. Wigglesworth’s second theme is less svelte than Mann’s, its wry edge sharper but its companion cautioning quieter, as is the third theme, yet Hough brings to it a luminous glow, one that doesn’t finally allow as sparklingly a fusion in mood with the first theme as Krieger does, but is satisfying elated nonetheless. Wigglesworth does more deftly and blithely toss about the folky dotted rhythms.

Krieger gives us Brahms’ Piano Sonata 1 as a generous coupling. Its opening statement is powerful, assertive, heroic and untroubled about inhabiting the mould of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata. A bright discipline is displayed in then looking at the components of that confidence. Its second theme (tr. 5, 1:06) of eloquent gazing, reveals contemplation behind the razzmatazz, followed by a passage in the upper register where that gazing reaches the stars. Krieger provides persuasive advocacy for all this, so that by the time we get to the exposition repeat we feel the opening has more substance. In the development the second theme is given first a sad cloak and then one which spits fire with growing urgency of projection. But the original contemplative mood wins out until the impetuous blaze of the coda brings the opening theme to a fitting apotheosis. This is a young man’s music: confident, extravagant, but nevertheless securely structured and it does have variety.

I compared the 2017 recording by Jonathan Plowright (Bis BIS-2147). His opening has more grandeur and bonhomie than Krieger’s weight and sturdiness, but his second theme is lighter, treating more sensitively Brahms’ marked contrast of dynamic of piano after the preceding forte, but making a less eloquent impression than Krieger, because Krieger makes the theme sing and flow more, though less softly. Plowright’s upper register passage is the marked pp and more refined, but less glisteningly starry. Krieger isn’t so soft but he does observe Brahms’ poco ritenuto marking more tellingly.

The slow movement is “an old German Minnelied” presented with three variations. Krieger’s careful detailing of the scene accords with the song title, ‘The furtive moon is rising’, the tune in the left hand, a touch of decoration in the right, a statement comprising a firm mf opening phrase, a ghostly pp response, the statement repeated then a sparse refrain summary. There’s a certain colour but also fundamental gravity and a distinct framework apt for variation. The first variation (tr. 6, 0:59) brings an enlivening of rhythm, dissonant harmonies making the whole experience more stark, lurid, even anguished. Variation 2 (1:53) allows the right hand more bloom and could be limpid but for the insistent mordent ornaments which also give it an antique character, while the refrain is enriched by bell peal effects in both hands. Variation 3 (3:35) transforms the theme into something suddenly more confident and expansive, at first happy, then with a guarded dignity before a close that’s both intensely sober and tender and exquisitely played by Krieger. You couldn’t have a better example of a composer taking another’s song and making it his own.
Plowright’s opening is more furtive, less grave. His Variation 1 is neatly articulated but misses Krieger’s sense of progression. Plowright’s Variation 2 is more stately but you won’t find Krieger’s feeling for the freshness of freedom in the upper register. Plowright honours Brahms’ careful crafting, Krieger’s response is more spontaneous. Plowright makes the close of Variation 3 a movingly fond farewell but Krieger offers a more rounded experience of the whole variation.

The dominant feeling in Krieger’s account of the third movement Scherzo (tr. 7) is of lively propulsion. He finds more humour in the con fuoco marking than frenzy, and joy at pitting upper and lower registers, through leaps, at close proximity. The Trio is more gossamery with, from 2:12, the marking dolente. Krieger plays this straight and flowing, letting the angst appear through the chromaticism of which the Trio seems to be a study. Plowright’s Scherzo is more ostentatious and choleric in its sense of abruptness through marking more the brief rests in the line. He finds humour in the sharper dynamic contrasts he makes of the quieter passages. In the Trio he also finds more contrast through a greater stillness in the sustained softness of the dolente material than the greater warmth and fluctuation of dynamic elsewhere.

The rondo finale (tr. 8) also has a con fuoco marking and, even more than in Krieger’s account of the Scherzo, its theme, peppered with offbeat sforzandi, is characterized by a sense of precipitation. Will you notice that the theme is a fast variant of that of the first movement? Hardly, in this headier scheme of things. Its second part (0:41) finds a jolly Krieger smiling up and down the registers. The first episode (1:26) is a welcome contrast in its expansive chordal theme, Krieger taking his ease, lying back in a sun which shines in G major. The return of the rondo is soft, Krieger’s sforzandi even delicate, but it soon works itself up into another scream of exhilaration. The second episode (3:32) is another chordal tune, this one in A minor, more substantial and melancholic, quite Mendelssohnian, its urgency secured by running quavers in the left hand. After Krieger’s airy climax, elements of this theme are shared with the return of the rondo theme. That reasserts its authority with its jolly second part, only to be ousted by a fast coda of more dissonant offbeat sforzandi before a close in which Brahms is at his most festively exuberant. Krieger takes us through this maze of experiences with consummate equanimity. Timing at 6:28 to Krieger’s 7:20, Plowright’s rondo theme and its returns have more fizz, but Krieger gives you more weight of accents. Plowright’s first episode is very charming, salon-music style, but I miss Krieger’s languor and the comely ripples of echoing notes. Plowright’s second episode is swept through with no time for the edge Krieger supplies from the outset, so you wonder how its impressively charged climax comes about.

There are many features to consider in performing Brahms and I have tried to show where Krieger’s strengths lie while comparisons also show those of other recent performers. Krieger’s accounts are impressive. He is particularly fine at his flowing line in the more soulful elements, while also offering a sturdy spontaneity for the more boisterous and virtuosic ones.
Michael Greenhalgh



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