Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2; Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 2; Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119
PERFORMER: Marc-André Hamelin (piano); Dallas SO/Andrew Litton
CATALOGUE NO: SACDA 67550
Until the appearance of this live recording Marc-André Hamelin’s astonishingly eclectic discography had not embraced any of the peaks of the 19th-century piano concerto repertoire. Yet it’s no surprise that he should have been drawn to the challenges of Brahms’s Second. Having already regaled us with a superb account of the Busoni, the symphonic proportions of the Brahms clearly hold no terrors for Hamelin who throughout the Concerto and the Op. 119 set plays with consummate musicianship and formidable technical control.

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Where many others struggle with the weighty demands of Brahms’s piano writing, Hamelin ensures that warmth and beauty of tone are never sacrificed even in the most thickly textured writing of the first movement. The Finale in particular is quite dazzling, Hamelin’s quicksilver dexterity bringing an effervescent humour and brilliant rhythmic incisiveness to the music. With Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra offering sympathetic and sensitive support and a marvellously atmospheric recording to boot, the performance elsewhere emphasises the intimate nature of the work, sometimes at the expense of its heroic and impassioned qualities.

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For a heroic account, I would turn to Rudolf Serkin’s 1966 recording on Sony. But the expansive partnership of Emil Gilels and Eugen Jochum on DG still reigns supreme, delivering a wider range of colours and emotions particularly in the slow movement where, for all his poetic sensibility, Hamelin sounds a little dull in comparison with Gilels’s intensity. Likewise, although Hamelin’s light-hearted approach to the Finale may win over more listeners than the comparatively sober Gilels, the latter finds unexpected elements of melancholy lurking beneath its veneer of exuberance. Erik Levi