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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 (1881) [46:46]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 (1861) [27:59]
Royal Northern Sinfonia/Lars Vogt (piano)
rec. 2019, Sage Gateshead Concert Hall, UK; Kammermusiksaal DLF, Cologne, Germany
ONDINE ODE1346-2 [74:45]

You've probably read many record reviews of warhorse works that begin something like, “Do we really need another new recording of...” That almost sounds like a complaint, but I won't complain because even new warhorse recordings are welcome if their performances are good. True, the standards for them must be somewhat higher than for works not in the standard repertory. Here, we have yet another Brahms Second Piano Concerto, coupled with a slightly less popular solo piece. So, the question is, do the performances here merit your attention considering the plethora of excellent competition in both?

Lars Vogt is one of the more highly respected piano virtuosos today, one with a distinction though: like Barenboim and Ashkenazy before him, he has taken on conducting, serving as music director of the Royal Northern Sinfonia since 2015, the ensemble used here. This is the first recording of the Brahms Second I've encountered where the piano soloist also fills the role of conductor, quite a feat because on the piano side of things this is generally regarded, along with the Prokofiev Second and Rachmaninov Third, foremost among the most challenging concertos to play. On the other side, the orchestra's role is quite substantial, so much so that in the past the work was often referred to as a “symphony with piano obbligato”. That's a bit of an exaggeration of course, but it gets the point across about the orchestra's prominence in this concerto. So, there isn't a moment here to relax for the soloist/conductor.

Vogt's tempos tend to be just slightly on the brisk side in the first, second and fourth movements, but very swift in the third, resulting in the fastest rendering of this Andante that I've ever heard. Yet, the fleet pacing works, allowing you to hear the music in quite a different way. Throughout much of the work Vogt plays with a big tone, but also divulges wide ranging dynamics, thus allowing him to play with delicacy and elegance when called for, as in the finale's buoyant Dolce theme (mm. 97-104).

Overall, the first movement comes across in an epic way, the music often sounding muscular and dynamic, never ponderous or too weighty. Vogt plays the solo, cadenza-like passage near the beginning boldly, with plenty of thrust, and then as conductor he brings his orchestra in to deliver an energetic account of the long exposition. Dynamics and accenting are well chosen here, and thereafter soloist and orchestra have a natural flow together, often with a give-and-take character that fits their generally dynamic and epic view of the music. Notable is how brilliantly Vogt plays the two build-up sections on solo piano (from 6:55 and from 14:19), leading in the first instance to a stormy orchestral statement of the main theme and then in the latter to a triumphant ending.

Vogt infuses the second movement Scherzo with an appropriately fiery but never dour character in the main theme, but then deftly points up the contrast that follows, moving seamlessly from the tempestuous to the serene with the mostly gentle alternate theme. Yet he gives subtle hints here of the inner struggle from the main theme's attempt to intrude in the way he gradually builds the tension in his swelling dynamics. He also effectively captures the spirit of the glorious but yearning theme in the Trio, and the movement's close is filled with plenty of anxiety and drive to crown this exciting account.

The third movement, as mentioned earlier, is very briskly paced but the tempo works nicely only because Brahms' flowing melody is more adaptable than probably most of us had previously thought. In a sense one can argue that Vogt takes a more Classical approach here than a Romantic one. Maybe so, but I like Vogt's more animated approach and how he contrasts this lyrical, serene music with the stormier B minor theme, which seemingly is the piano's disruptive answer to this opening tranquility from the cello. Speaking of the cello, the soloist Steffan Morris plays admirably throughout and the whole movement unfolds nicely here. The finale begins gracefully but soon Vogt adds weight to the bass chords as the music intensifies, highlighting the sense of angst. I've already spoken of how he deftly enacts the playful character of the Dolce theme but let me wrap up by saying, the whole movement takes shape quite effectively, both from the soloist's perspective and from the orchestra's. Overall then, this is an excellent account of the concerto enhanced by solid support from the orchestra and vivid, well balanced sound reproduction by the engineers.

In the Handel Variations Vogt displays many of the same stylistic traits, though now with tempos that are moderate to slightly expansive. He never sounds laggardly though, and generally imparts a vitality to the music when called for. That said, those familiar with performances of Kovacevich, (Philips), Perahia (Sony Classical), and others will find some fast variations less aggressively played here, as in Nos. 7 and 8, though I find Vogt's playing sprightly and well imagined. I like his account too of No. 9, the music sounding stately yet ominous here in its deliberate gait. Vogt plays most variations exceedingly well in this performance and the Fugue is also a success. It is not played too briskly, as in many other performances, and notice how Vogt begins building the music from around 1:38 (track 6) with subtly applied dynamics and imaginative phrasing in general, capturing the spirit of this glorious but conflicted music so brilliantly, effectively bringing off the climax in total triumph. Again, this is a thoroughly convincing performance, also with very fine sound reproduction.

The album booklet contains an interesting interview with Lars Vogt who talks about the music presented here. As for comparisons in these works, my reference performance of the Brahms Second has been the classic Serkin/Szell (Sony), edging out Cliburn/Reiner (RCA) and Richter/Leinsdorf (RCA). They are all older efforts though, so if you want an excellent performance with vivid, well balanced sound, this one by Vogt will serve you very well. Only the Hélène Grimaud/Andris Nelsons recording (DG) among recent issues rivals it, but that comes in a two-disc set with the First Concerto. In the Handel Variations, Cliburn (RCA) is hard to beat, but again it's an older performance and thus if you want updated sound Vogt is once again an excellent choice.

Robert Cummings

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