Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
Stephen Hough (pn); Mark Wigglesworth, cond; Salzburg Mozarteum O
HYPERION 67961 (2 CDs: 97:59)
Having only just reviewed a disappointing set of the Brahms piano concertos with Hélène Grimaud and Andris Nelsons for the last issue, I was very optimistic about this new set, given Stephen Hough’s distinguished reputation and winning track record of outstanding recordings. My optimism was not only justified, it was repaid tenfold. So stunning are these
performances and recordings, I am still awestruck and barely know where to begin describing them.
First off, let’s dispense with timings. In every movement but the finales of both concertos, Hough and Wigglesworth are faster than Grimaud and Nelsons, not by that much, mind you, but enough to give Hough and Wigglesworth an edge in forward momentum and thrust. But as I’ve said so many times before, tempo is only one measure of our perception of the pace of a performance.
Conductor Wigglesworth puts an interesting spin on Brahms’s
marking for the first movement of the First Concerto. Dignified, stately, and majestic, it’s anything but. The orchestra’s opening salvo—with its kettledrum roll and
octave Ds in the horns, violas, and double basses, joined a bar later by the clarinets, bassoons, violins, and cellos—is like the bursting open of the gates of Hell and the unleashing of its fires upon the face of the Earth. It’s an apocalyptic vision that will startle you out of your seat. I’ve never heard the beginning of this Concerto delivered with such a punishing punch to the solar plexus; it knocked the wind right out of me.
In short order, it’s followed by that inexpressibly sad, yet caressingly comforting, subsidiary theme, played with a feeling of such absolution it would melt stone. I have to admit that upon first receiving this release for review, I questioned how successful the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra would be in bringing off such a big, expansive, Romantic score, having previously tended to associate the ensemble with a modestly sized orchestra specializing in repertoire from the Classical period.
My assumptions and doubts were ill-founded. At full force, the Salzburg band numbers 91 players, which are way more than necessary or what are called for by Brahms’s two piano concertos. In the First Concerto, woodwinds, brass, and timpani together add up to only 15, and even if you maximized the strings to say, 12, 12, 8, 8, and 4, you’d still have fewer than 60 players. The Second Concerto uses the same complement of woodwinds, brass, and timpani, with one of the flutes doubling on piccolo. Neither of the concertos uses the trombones, contrabassoon, or tuba variously called for by Brahms in his symphonies.
Here I am, well into this review, and I haven’t even come yet to Stephen Hough. I just wanted to make clear first what phenomenal playing Mark Wigglesworth draws from the Mozarteum orchestra and what a fantastic interpreter of these Brahms scores he is. Is it too much to hope that he, the orchestra, and Hyperion will team up to record the symphonies?
Hough, unsurprisingly, is a master of this domain. His well-received 1991 recording of the two concertos for Virgin Classics with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis established Hough’s Brahms credentials, but those performances can’t match the electrifying synergy that exists between Hough and Wigglesworth in these new versions.
Hough’s subtle rubato, nuanced
, and building of long arches in ever upward spiraling dynamic calibrations lead with infallible intuition to Brahms’s sweeping climaxes. Both Hough, with his left hand, and Wigglesworth, coaxing the cellos and double basses with his baton, bring out Brahms’s almost Baroque-like ostinatos and recurring motivic fragments lurking deep in the lines below the surface in a way that not only make them audible, but further add to the sense of imposing structural integrity projected by these performances.
Hough, as always, of course, is a real powerhouse of a player, with a commanding technique and indefatigable stamina that make him an ideal pianist for these two towering Romantic concertos. I’m surprised that Hyperion never got around to them as part of its “Romantic Piano Concerto” series.
Where the B?-Major Concerto is concerned, fairness demands that I note Wigglesworth’s equally slow, drawn-out opening measures, the same metronomic anomaly I called attention to in my previous review of the Grimaud and Nelsons performance. I don’t know where this particular practice arose or what justifies it, but I see nothing in the score that can square a tempo that’s practically
for the three quarter-notes and a triplet sounded by the first horn in measure one, with a tempo that takes off
on the same three quarter-notes and a triplet in the full orchestra at the commencement of the big orchestral exposition 28 bars later, after the piano’s introductory cadenza. There’s no change in the initial tempo marking of
or metronome indication of 92 to the quarter-note.
I will say, though, that if you have to perpetuate this seemingly habitual misreading, Wigglesworth, the orchestra’s first horn player (Willi Schwaiger, I presume), and Hyperion’s recording engineer have conspired to create the most atmospheric projection of those opening horn calls I’ve ever heard. With just the right amount of ambient reverberation, the effect is that of the alphorn echoing across alpine meadows in the TV commercial for Ricola cough drops. I know that may strike you funny, but I guarantee it’s a sound that will instantly transport you to a place somewhere in the Swiss or Austrian Alps.
Special commendation must also go to the orchestra’s principal cellist, Marcus Pouget, for his rapturously played solo in the Second Concerto’s third movement.
Hough, of course, plays gloriously throughout, with thunderous
s and pointed rhythmic accents in Brahms’s angst-ridden passages, and delicate whispers in the quiet, calm moments.
There are too many recordings of these concertos in the catalog, some having significant historical interest, to say that these new ones from Hough, Wigglesworth, the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, and Hyperion are the best ever to have graced the grooves, but I can definitely say that for the foreseeable future these are the performances of the Brahms piano concertos I shall be listening to before all others. Urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Piano no 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 by Johannes Brahms
Stephen Hough (Piano)
Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Written: 1878-1881; Austria
Concerto for Piano no 1 in D minor, Op. 15 by Johannes Brahms
Stephen Hough (Piano)
Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Written: 1854-1858; Germany
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