Brahms The Piano Concertos
Stephen Hough/Mozarteumorchester Salzburg
‘The conductors with whom (Stephen Hough) works do not accompany. They collaborate, and do so in the fullest sense, with an open-minded approach to the score that yields interpretative fruits as fresh as those disclosed by the soloist. Interpretations built from the ground up, un-beholden to any threadbare tradition, and abundant with heretofore neglected details result. Listening to them can be thrilling, as in the case of the Tchaikovsky concertos with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osma Vanska, or revelatory, as were the Liszt concertos with Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic. This new set of Brahms concertos maintain and even extend those high standards.
Mark Wigglesworth leads the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg in a trajectory that from the timpani thunderclap punctuating the pedal point surge that launches the D minor Concerto, enacts the relentless unfolding of implacable tragedy. This is undoubtedly young Brahms, but without a trace of reticence or ambivalence. Towering, angular chords have edges that could slice stone and the strings’ high-register trills shriek in recoiling alarm. When energy subsides and the piano enters, Hough is at pains to articulate gently swaying quavers with Brahms’ non-legato, legato and staccato indications, long since ignored by everyone in favour of an undifferentiated legato line. The effect is immediately striking – a disconnect – as though the protagonist inadvertently wandered onto a scene of such violence and devastation that he is unable or unwilling to comprehend what surrounds him. Thus, through the accretion of another two dozen instances of close reading, intelligent contrasts and eloquent rhetoric, do Hough, Wigglesworth and the Salzburgers construct a towering edifice, conjuring waves of power and tapping veins of poetry from the depths of this perhaps least guarded of Brahms creations. The Adagio moves quickly enough to allow for the application of exquisitely wrought rubato at appropriate junctures without risk if collapse; it concludes with a cadenza that could be the ascent of an angel. Rhythmic vitality and crystalline textures imbue this Rondo whose escape from death seems a vigorous, ritualised dance.
The seemingly vast Bb Concerto requires radically different strategies. Without sacrificing grandeur or mass, this performance is distinctly colourful and shapely – one is almost tempted to say lithe. Significant credit is due to Wigglesworth, whose close attention to balances render the orchestral choirs luminous, and whose wonderfully coaxing, elastic beat never becomes ponderous. Hough seems constitutionally incapable of the pasty-thick textures, constantly raised dampers, glacial tempos and muddy colours with which many pianists baste this piece in particular, in the name of a ‘Brahms’ sound. He demonstrates time and again how a leaner sound allows this music greater flexibility, not to mention enhanced expressiveness through subtly shaped phrasing. The scherzo whips up terrific passion, only to be startlingly disarmed by the understated lyricism of the trio. The slow movement comes as close as any I know to the time-stopping starry firmament that Artur Schnabel and Adrian Boult created in 1935. And I confess – pace Backhouse, Rubinstein, Serkin, Richter, Fleisher, Angelich et al – I never knew the Rondo could sparkle with such grace and wit. Both Marcus Pouget’s cello obligato and the uncredited horn solos are superb.
There’s nothing to argue with in either the conception or execution of these stimulating, heartfelt performances. The engineers did a tremendous job of capturing a fully dimensional, sensual sound that is rich in detail, while providing a welcome true-to-life balance between piano and orchestra. Over the past week and a half I’ve returned to them again and again, always with great pleasure and constantly hearing new, interesting details. Dyed-in-the-wool devotees of Brahms, as well as those who desperately need a new take on him, will find here much to savour and ponder.’
Patrick Rucker, International Record Review; December 2013
“Wigglesworth is pact and taut in rhythm…The impression I have here is of readings that have divested themselves of excess baggage and are lighter on their feet…I ended up delighted by and in complete admiration of Hough’s boldness. He has become a warmer player of increased range in Brahms, and unafraid to take risks.”
Gramophone Magazine; January 2014
“Clearly working in absolute rapport with Mark Wigglesworth, they achieve together a lean, at times almost wiry sound…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.”
BBC Music Magazine; February 2014
‘Two eyebrows might be raised at Stephen Hough’s new CD. There’s the unusual cover painting: a feverishly coloured coastal scene from the Russian expressionist Jawlensky, not the first painter to come to mind when thinking of Brahms. Your other eyebrow might shoot up over the choice of orchestra, although there’s actually no reason why the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra can’t summon the heft that Brahms’s piano concertos require; they even play Bruckner symphonies.
There’s no surprise at any rate that the pianist is Stephen Hough. Britain’s keyboard wizard has been regularly programming Brahms in recent concerts and his performances here show his usual thoughtfulness, elegance and brilliance. He’s especially striking in the mature expanse of the second concerto, often flecking solo phrases with miniature hesitations as if pausing to savour the taste of a choice biscuit. His way with the scherzo may be over-earnest even for Brahms’s grave jest, but the pay-off arrives with the fleet finale, which is entrancingly light and sparkling. As for the slow movement, Hough’s penetrating playing, so limpid and pensive, is still echoing in my head alongside Marcus Pouget’s beautiful cello solos.
The reverberations of the entire orchestra are equally slow to die. The conductor Mark Wigglesworth scrupulously prepared his musicians and their medium-weight sound offers the best of both worlds: chamber intimacy if needed, but also clear textures whenever the notes thicken. As for drama, the orchestra launches the first concerto with spectacular tension, urged forward by timpani tremors as baleful as rolling thunder. When the caressing second motif arrives, it’s time to mop the brow.
In the recording balance Hough is placed forward enough to display his mettle without ever hammering the listener. In No 1, the breadth of his playing in phrasing and pacing impresses the most and if his finale never properly caps the argument, that drawback was built into the work from the beginning. Not that anyone at this date should be wagging a finger at Brahms: both concertos are marvels of the repertory and Hough and the Mozarteum players polish their wonders anew.’
Geoff Brown, The Times; November 29th 2013
‘A select handful of concertos by Mozart and Beethoven, the first of Tchaikovsky’s and the two Brahms concertos are what we are most likely to hear during any symphony orchestra season, or at a piano competition. This is music that’s familiar and comfortable, like a pair of bedroom slippers. So familiar that it’s easy to forget that Brahms is not easy either technically or musically. Nor are these two works typical of the showy Romantic piano concerto tradition.
Hough has been performing the Brahms concertos around the world (including Toronto) for years and years, but he waited until his early 50s to set his thoughts down for a permanent record. The result is emphatically worth our attention.
The most noticeable thing about these interpretations is their freedom. Recorded at the Festival Hall in Salzburg with the orchestra of the Mozarteum and conductor Mark Wigglesworth in January, these performances are paragons of carefully modulated musical storytelling. The coordination between conductor and soloists is remarkable, resulting in subtle rubato, pauses and dynamic shifts made in perfect lock step. Hough is a master of the velvet touch, while Wigglesworth gets utter clarity and balance from his orchestra. With this sort of freedom with the music, there’s always the threat that the overall interpretation will be less than the sum of some very pretty parts, but both concertos come out as impeccably rendered wholes that also delight in the little details. Hough can come off as a bit mannered at times, articulating details in some passages that are usually performed more evenly and changing some common phrasings, but his personal touches all make sense in the context of the bigger picture.
These two concertos are very different pieces of music. The first was, in many ways, Brahms’ symphonic coming-out piece as a 20-something. He wrote his second concerto 20 years later. He had a lot to prove in the first, and a lot of skill to incorporate into the second. The first is self-consciously dramatic, the second is more quietly assured — and the musicians treat the music accordingly.
Both pieces are structured like supersized chamber works, where the piano is less about showboating than being an orchestral collaborator. Of course the pianist can show off, with crashing chords and cascading runs, but there is much tender singing in the slow movements and near-constant dialogue between the big, black beast and everyone else on stage.
In these Brahms concertos, having the soloist and orchestra on the same wavelength really does make a difference.’
John Terauds, Musical Toronto; December 13th 2013
‘The two great piano concertos by Brahms are perhaps the most symphonically conceived of the standard repertoire. Indeed, the earlier in D minor — also the key of Beethoven’s last symphony — began life as a piano solo work, which the young composer struggled to turn into a symphony before finalising its form five years after its original conception. The later B flat major work is unusual for the so-called “classicist” Brahms in that it has a four-movement structure, like a symphony, including a “scherzo”; but there is nothing joke-like about this epic, turbulent allegro appassionato (also in D minor), especially as conceived by Hough and Wigglesworth in their broad, spacious and dramatic accounts of both masterpieces. Hough brings his famed dexterity to the bravura passages, but never sounds glitzy or showy. Indeed, the most rewarding aspect of both performances is his chamber-music-like interplay with the excellent Mozarteumorchester’s soloists — the principal horn is glorious throughout, launching the B flat concerto with a clarion but warm central European glow. These familiar and oft-recorded works sound fresh minted. Brahms’s concertos have rarely sounded more brilliant, energetic and innovative.’
Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times; January 5th 2014
‘Stephen Hough has previously recorded Brahms’s piano concertos, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Davis. That was more than twenty years ago and he has not denied himself or us the music since. His January 2013 view of these expansive works is documented here, with the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg and Mark Wigglesworth. The current collaboration is a very productive one.
If the name of the Salzburg-based orchestra suggests fewer personnel than is the norm, then whatever size the ensemble is, the clarity and weight of the playing seems about ideal, and Wigglesworth’s conducting is deeply considered as well as being sympathetic to Hough. There is plenty of timpani thunder and horn blaze at the opening of the mighty D minor Piano Concerto, and woodwinds and strings are in parity; detail abounds. From Hough’s first entry the music is kept on the move without rush or glossing over possibilities. From tenderness to tempestuousness the pianist has the music’s measure. As ever with Hough, his playing is never sterile or hectoring – a myriad of touch and dynamic contrasts testifies to this – and enjoys a bygone approach to flexible phrasing and also invests a healthy disturbance when required. The piano, a Steinway, has a particularly attractive tone, warm and pellucid, never harsh yet with real depth of tone, and allows no end of expressive solos; the opening of the wonderful slow movement, a benediction, cuts one to the emotional quick. No lack of energy and cut and thrust, either, which the outer movements abound in. This is in short a virile and moving performance, sensitive and searching, that repays numerous return visits.
So too the majesty of its B flat successor with a ripe horn solo to open. Once again Hough’s love of and experience in Brahms’s music shines through in numerous personal touches that illuminate the music while also being unshakeable in terms of integrity. The space of the opening movement is well attested to, poise, drive and reflection made as one. The scherzo that is the second movement is suitably passionate, and the slow movement opens with the distinct advantage of the solo cellist being adjacent to the pianist (rather than espied by him straight ahead through the piano and its lid), a consequence of Wigglesworth using antiphonal violins and placing the cellos centre-left. It means that Marcus Pouget, in his beautifully rendered contribution, can act as a partner to the pianist, exactly what Brahms intended in this rapt and ardent outpouring. As for the finale, its relaxed playful quality is highlighted, with some elastic stretch and so beguilingly in the process.
All-round excellence here, then, naturally recorded and with a good musical balance, rich and rounded. Hyperion is offering the two CDs for the price of one.’
Colin Anderson, ClassicalSource.com; December 2013
‘These are not Stephen Hough’s first recordings of the Brahms concertos: he recorded both of them for Virgin Classics with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis around 1989/1990. I haven’t heard those performances but the recording of the Second Concerto received a rather muted welcome here from Tim Perry, largely on account of what he judged to be lacklustre conducting by Davis. Jonathan Woolf was similarly disappointed. I hope if either of them gets the opportunity to hear this new account of the concerto they will feel it merits higher praise; I rather think they might. First we must consider the new recording of the D minor concerto. Things get off to an auspicious start: the orchestral opening is fiery, the playing muscular and strongly profiled. There’s a slightly grainy sound to the strings – I don’t say that in a negative way – and all in all Mark Wigglesworth and his players convey the impression that the music is, in annotator Jan Swafford’s words, ‘massive and dramatic’. Stephen Hough, when he joins them, is on the same wavelength. Throughout this huge, taxing movement there’s an abundance of sinewy strength in both the piano playing and the contribution of the orchestra. Yet the reflective side of the music is in no way underplayed; that’s excellently done too. All in all I felt that all the facets of Brahms’s movement are well explored here. Jan Swafford, author of a fine biography of the composer, reminds us that Brahms told Clara Schumann that the second movement was ‘a tender portrait’ of her. It’s beautifully done here with the poetic side of Hough’s pianism well to the fore. He’s impressive too in the more ardent stretches of music and once again one has the distinct feeling of soloist and conductor on the same wavelength. In the rondo finale Swafford states that Brahms followed the time-honoured practice that a concerto finale should be ‘light, brilliant and vivacious rather than ponderous’. The movement is definitely not ponderous but this is an occasion when Brahms’s high spirits were on the serious side or, at least, purposeful. Hough rises completely to the virtuoso demands of the piano writing – as he has throughout the concerto – offering much dexterous playing. Once again you feel that Wigglesworth and his players are with him every step of the way. The final pages are very exciting, bringing a notable reading of this concerto to a fine conclusion.
The D minor concerto was the product of a great deal of compositional labouring by Brahms; it took him five years to complete. By contrast the B flat concerto is a work written when he was at the height of his powers. The first movement is scarcely less imposing and ambitious in terms of scale than the corresponding movement in the D minor concerto – in these performances the first movement of the D minor concerto plays for 22:53, the first movement of its companion takes 18:19. However, where so much of the earlier concerto’s opening movement was turbulent in nature here we have a much more lyrical – and, dare one say, confident – spirit. Jan Swafford very rightly points out that the nature of the piano part is constantly changing, ‘its music moving from long unaccompanied solos to lacy filigree accompanying the orchestra.’ Whatever Brahms asks of him Stephen Hough achieves in a most satisfying and accomplished fashion, his playing responsive to all the nuances of the score. There may be less turmoil in evidence here than was the case with the D minor work but the piano part is still a major test of pianistic strength and stamina. It’s also demanding on the conductor and orchestra but all involved pass Brahms’s tests with flying colours. It’s perhaps significant that the scherzo is in D minor for in some ways we’re plunged back into the emotional world of the earlier concerto in this dark, surging movement. In a powerful performance Stephen Hough invests the music with great energy and no little passion. He and Wigglesworth collaborate in a tremendous performance. Wigglesworth sets quite a flowing tempo for the gorgeous third movement; his pace is a little faster than I can recall hearing on disc before and overall he and Hough take 11:52 whereas in the justly renowned Gilels/Jochum performance (DG, 1972) the movement plays for 14:02 – and never seems a second too long. But the tempo marking is ’only’ Andante, so I think the pace in this present performance is fully justified – and it works. The lovely cello solo is played very well indeed by Marcus Pouget though I think that Ottomar Borwitzky (for Jochum) had a slightly richer tone. Here we have a wonderful performance that is detailed and romantic. The exquisite transition back to the cello solo with which we began (6:11 – 8:10), always a touchstone for me, is magical. The music of the finale is light and good humoured and these performers clearly enjoy it. There’s wit and grace in Hough’s playing and the orchestra match him. This, then, is another highly successful performance, just like its companion on the other disc.
As a look at our Masterworks Index for either concerto will confirm, there is an abundance of top quality recordings of each in the catalogue. I bought the Emil Gilels set when it first came out on LP and in its CD incarnation it continues to be a cornerstone of my collection (review). Curzon and Szell take some beating in the D minor concert (review); it’s interesting that they’re significantly more expansive than Hough/Wigglesworth in the Adagio. I also greatly admire the readings of both works from two very different pianists: Solomon (Testament) and Stephen Kovacevich (EMI). Other readers will have their own personal favourites, I’m sure.
However, this new Hyperion set can be ranked with the very best. The pianism is of the highest order, both technically and intellectually, while Stephen Hough seems to have found an ideal collaborator in Mark Wigglesworth, who here makes his Hyperion debut. The performances have been captured in very good sound by engineer Simon Eadon and producer Andrew Keener while the booklet essay by Jan Swafford is succinct and valuable. Hyperion are offering these recordings as a two-for-the-price-of-one set, which increases the attraction. I shall continue to listen with great pleasure to all the recordings mentioned in the previous paragraph – and some others besides – but I know I’ll also be returning often to this very fine set. These performances now join the select list of reference recordings for both concertos.’
John Quinn, Musicweb-International; January 2014