Brahms: Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms: Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2
WORKS: Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2
PERFORMER: Stephen Hough (piano); Mozarteumorchester Salzburg/Mark Wigglesworth
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67961

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Stephen Hough has proved himself a superb Brahms player in various discs of the solo piano music, and this very satisfying double album of the two Concertos confirms and augments his reputation. Clearly working in absolute rapport with Mark Wigglesworth, they achieve together a lean, at times almost wiry sound that allows important subsidiary voices to stand out, yet there is no lack of muscular force or orchestral power in the many big moments. Hough brings an unusually wide range of keyboard colour to bear on Brahms’s piano-writing. Added to that his complete understanding of the broadest trajectory and subtlest nuances of these works is reflected in his subtle flexibility of tempo and dynamics to underline expressive points that in some other performances go for nothing. Above all he plays with a real sense of discovery, as if dazzled by the freshness of Brahms’s invention.

In the D minor Concerto I was especially impressed by Hough’s seraphic, deeply thoughtful treatment of the slow movement cadenza and the sense of fantasy and caprice he brings to the final rondo. In the B flat the delicacy and playfulness of the finale are a delight, while there is an unusually reflective, even musing quality to some of his playing in the scherzo, and the slow movement is as affecting as I have ever heard it. The Salzburg Mozarteum cannot be ranked as one of the world’s greatest orchestras, and occasionally that shows. Nevertheless this admirable set richly deserves its five stars for performance.

It’s impossible not to compare Hélène Grimaud’s double album of the two Brahms Concertos with Hough’s. Here again a superb pianist at the height of their powers is teamed to a conductor with whom they seem to have instinctive rapport. Would that Hough had had, like Grimaud, the services of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (No. 1) or the Vienna Philharmonic (No. 2). Grimaud has already recorded No. 1 in a sterling version with the Berlin Staatskapelle under Kurt Sanderling; this new version (unlike No. 2, a live recording) tops that one for physical excitement, and for insight in the dreamier, more miasmic passages of the slow movement. She often produces a heftier sound than Hough; by the same token the playing, though very exciting, is sometimes less nuanced.

Altogether the approach is more monumental than Hough/Wigglesworth, and also more opulent. Grimaud and Andris Nelsons are slower than Hough, both Concertos clocking in at over 50 minutes. One example of this is their measured, even relaxed tempo for the scherzo of Concerto No. 2, though the result hardly lacks for drama; and there’s drama aplenty in the big first movement of the same Concerto. Nelsons secures some delightfully pointed orchestral playing in No. 1’s finale, and really creates the restorative calm of No. 2’s slow movement. So: very different from Hough/Wigglesworth, but an achievement of virtually comparable stature.

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Calum MacDonald