on 26 November 2013
My goodness! What an opening!
Many years ago, whilst a music student, our head of department related a story about a rehearsal of the Brahms first piano concerto he attended during a 1960's Edinburgh Festival. The artists were George Szell, Clifford Curzon and the London Symphony Orchestra.
"He, (Szell), started the concerto with a fierce downbeat. The LSO responded with a fortissimo. Szell was not satisfied. He mumbled something to the leader then gave an even fiercer downbeat. The orchestra gave an FFF response. Szell stopped and then spent what seemed like a very long time saying nothing whilst staring at each section of the orchestra in turn. He gave a small downbeat and the response was as if all hell had broken loose!"
Szell played on for a bit then stopped before the soloist entered. 'That, Gentlemen will do for now. Tonight, you give me the real thing, huh?'
Well, this recording must replicate that event since my wife and I jumped out our seats at the beginning. The tempi in the first movement are very fluent - no geriatric Brahms here! This really is young man's music and all concerned here seem determined to prove it. The second movement shows just how well Hough does poetry and, again, tempi flow very well. The last movement is equally convincing. CD Review featured this work on 'Building a Library' recently. Had this recording been available I suspect it may have swept the board.
The second concerto's performance is easily the equal to that of the first. The orchestra have a more collaborative role in this work and Wigglesworth brings out the very best from them. (I wonder how much opportunity they get to play these Titanic works). The solo 'cellist is superb in the lovely dialogue of the third movement and He (Marcus Pouget) and Hough really bring depth to this glorious outpouring.
The recording is superb (if, perhaps, highlighting the piano part a shade too much). The notes and presentation are the usual high standard from Hyperion - surely the finest of all independent record labels.
At £9.99 for two discs, this should be on everyone's Christmas list.
on 23 August 2015
This is the kind of recording that a certain kind of classical music aficionado simply detests.
I'm talking, of course, about those for whom a massive, burnished string sound is all that really matters - or, at least, what matters most. In essence, these listeners find it hard to enjoy anything that doesn't feature the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic, preferably during their 1960s and 1970s pomp. If you feel, for example, that Beethoven's late string quartets sound best arranged for a full symphony orchestra and conducted by Bernstein, you will almost certainly consider this recording of the Brahms Piano Concerti pure anathema.
I would therefore advise these people to simply look away, rather than investigating a recording that they are plainly going to find nauseating from the outset.
No, the strings here do not sound like those of the Berlin Philharmonic on the famous Gilels recording with Jochum - a recording that, I hasten to add, I also love.
But the approach here is no less valid. In fact, with less emphasis on a massive bank of strings, we get to pay far closer attention to, for instance, some of the gorgeous woodwind parts that Brahms wrote as part of his score for the D minor concerto. When we get massive banks of strings, beautiful though they can sound, we often lose the more subtle phrases that belong to other instruments. Here, this is not the case at all. Instead, there is a sublime sense of balance to the sound that is a joy, revealing countless details that are so often obscured.
Also, the most colossal recordings (those of Gilels and Arrau, for example) might have impact aplenty, but they often fall short when it comes to tenderness and intimacy. The D minor concerto features a central adagio that was plainly intended to be both tender and intimate, and here that is very much the case.
Talking of tender and intimate, Hough's playing is, in my estimation, superb - here and on his many other recordings. He can bring muscle to the table when it's required but can deftly dial the mood right down to the more sensitive end of the spectrum without even the slightest sense of contrivance. Listen to how he handles the closing passages of the adagio in the D minor concerto - it's quite simply masterful.
There's a wonderful flow to the music here - nothing sounds laboured or heavy-handed. Too many recordings of the Brahms Piano Concerti sound like both conductor and pianist were thinking only of how to make the music sound as portentous as possible, with eloquence ending up on the scrapheap. Here, there is eloquence aplenty, coupled with a gorgeous lyricism that frees the music up to speak to the listener more directly.
There's something charming about hearing a performance that sounds as though it has a strong connection with how the composer actually conceived it. Again, this recording offers that experience. With the pairing of Wigglesworth and Hough, Brahms' feelings for both the Schumanns are brought most poignantly to the fore. Both Robert and Clara would be suitably moved.
This double bill of the Brahms Piano Concertos, recorded over four days last January in the Salzburger Festspielhaus, has been rapturously received in some quarters and it is indeed very good: the sound is superb, the playing masterly and the package very attractive (hideous cover notwithstanding). Stephen Hough is, in terms of both technique and artistry, certainly one of the best pianists before the public today and this recording will be welcomed; indeed, it seems to be one of the few new releases making encouraging sales at present.
However, I wonder if, in the context of previous great recordings, it is quite as special as some claim. It must compete with versions on my shelves of the First by Rubinstein (with Reiner), of the Second by Gilels (again, with Reiner) and by Richter (with Leinsdorf), and, in both concertos, van Cliburn (yet again with Reiner), Kovacevich (with Davis) and Gilels (with Jochum) - and that's some competition.
For all his clarity and fluency, I don't think Hough quite matches those artists for drive, power and brilliance - although the opening of the D minor is certainly arresting enough and Wigglesworth directs with real momentum, while allowing Hough space for rubato and shapely phrasing. But it is soon apparent that the Mozarteumorchester is not the BPO, the LSO or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and at times they sound a little tonally grey and under-powered for such titanic music.
Nonetheless, I like and enjoy these performances; there is too much going for them to merit any other reaction - it's simply that they are not quite the very best ever made.