For # 53 in
their distinguished series of Romantic Piano Concertos, Hyperion has chosen
warhorses (by their standards), while pushing the definition of "Romantic"
toward the Early Modern. Max Reger's Piano Concerto has been recorded several
times, including once with the same companion piece as here (Barry Douglas on an
out-of-print RCA CD with Marek Janowski and the Radio France Philharmonic),
while Richard Strauss' Burleske is
pretty much in the standard repertoire. Unfortunately, the new CD is one of the
few disappointments in the series thus far, both in performance and sound.
Reger's Piano Concerto, which the composer
himself modestly called a "pendant" to Brahms' D minor First Concerto, is a
thorny work, indeed comparable to the Brahms in dramatic seriousness and
complexity, though few have found it anywhere near the same level of
inspiration. It does have its memorable moments and characteristic moods: e.g.,
the portentous orchestral introduction and the pianist's bold first statement;
the delicacy of the slow movement; the vigorous springiness of the finale. It
was written for a pianist named Frieda Kwast-Hodapp and premiered by her in 1910
(with the Leipzig Gewandthaus under Arthur Nikisch), but the work's greatest
champion has certainly been Rudolf Serkin, who played it with Furtwangler in
1922, premiered it in the US with Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis in 1945, and
recorded it with Ormandy and the Philadelphia in 1959. The Columbia LP has
appeared on CD only once (to my knowledge), on a 1990 CBS Masterworks Portrait
disc (with a superb Prokofiev Fourth Concerto, also with Ormandy): it's doubly
regrettable that this disc is out of print and that Columbia issued it in sound
that surely was much better on the original tapes. (A remastering, perhaps with
the Reger Cello and Violin Sonatas that he accompanied for another Columbia LP,
would be most welcome.)
There is of course no doubt that Marc-André Hamelin and the Berlin Radio Symphony can play this concerto. But comparison with Serkin/Ormandy reveals a relative lack of commitment, of "belief" in the piece, that is difficult to pinpoint but is real all the same. It's not a matter of tempos — Serkin's are only very slightly slower in the first two movements, slightly faster in the finale — or strikingly different phrasing. But compare the two renditions of the Allegro moderato's orchestral introduction: Ormandy's is bristling with tension, even menace, while Volkov offers just a run-through. In fairness, the surprisingly dull sound of Hyperion's recording, as if a veil had been thrown over the somewhat distant orchestra, may account for part of my perception. The pianist is more vividly recorded, though a hint of the veil remains, and as the movement continues, a thickness during the big concerted passages makes the recording a bit of a chore to listen to. Moreover, Hamelin's performance lacks Serkin's edginess. (One could say Serkin lacks a little of Hamelin's relatively warm piano tone, but in a concerto that tends toward the ponderous, more edge is better than less.) In the slow movement Hamelin seems a bit too studied, too halting, as if he were conscientiously trying to "sell" the piece; and the finale lacks some of the bounce and excitement that Serkin brings to the music.
As for the Burleske, I'll just mention that there are classic performances that one might better seek out, especially considering the less than outstanding sound on the new CD. My top recommendation is a 1992 live concert featuring Martha Argerich with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, available on both CD and DVD from DG.