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Johannes Brahms
Concertos for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in D minor, op. 15, No. 2 in B flat major, op. 83

Steven Hough (piano); Mark Wigglesworth conducting the Mozart Orchestra of Salzberg
CD Number: Hyperion 67961

Helene Grimaud (piano); Andris Nelssons conducting the Bavarian Radio Orchestra (op. 15) and the Vienna Philharmonic (op. 83)
Review By Max Westler

 

  The Brahms piano concertos are often compared to mountains, the twin peaks of the entire repertory. And that makes the pianists who dare to perform them akin to mountain climbers courageously scaling perilous heights. But at least mountaineers get to show their exhaustion, curse, grunt, stop along the way to catch their breath, or simply turn back, whereas the pianist who's attempting either of these works has to endure awkward, impracticable, and impossibly unwieldy writing that does not lie easily for the fingers---and yet, he or she must nevertheless produce a performance that seems in every way effortless, flowing, and completely natural. Paradoxically, the Brahms concertos demand unflinching virtuosity, but provide few if any opportunities for virtuosic self-display. At 50 minutes apiece (more or less), they're the longest concertos in the standard repertory, and require both physical stamina and intellectual rigor. No small wonder so many pianists--some departed, some still with us--have never recorded (or, to be kind, have yet to record) either of these works in spite of long careers: Schnabel, Michealangeli, Earl Wild, Annie Fischer, Clara Haskil, Andras Schiff, Marta Argerich, Jean Yves Thibaudet, to mention only a few. Standing in the shadows of these mammoths, even some of the greatest pianists choose self-preservation.

There do exist devil-may-care pianists who have recorded both works at the same point in their careers, usually (but not always) with the same conductor and orchestra. But alas, only a precious few of these rise to the challenge, performing both works equally well: the magisterial and beautifully shaped Claudio Arrau/Carlo Maria Giulini with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the heroic and dramatically intense Leon Fleischer/George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra, the shamelessly Romantic Krystian Zimmerman/Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic, the stormy give-and-take of Emil Gilels/Eugen Joachim with the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Apollonian alternative to all the above: Nelson Friere with Riccardo Chially and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. That Steven Hough and Helene Grimaud have now (almost simultaneously) given us recordings of these concertos is hardly surprising, for they are two of our most adventurous pianists both in their playing and choice of repertory. Here are two artists who are definitely not afraid of heights.

The Hough/Wigglesworth D minor begins promisingly with a right proper blast from the orchestra; but soon thereafter, the tension slackens. I suspect that Hough wants to stress the inward, vulnerable character of this otherwise fiery music, and so puts much emphasis on the lyric episodes. This is, of course, a valid interpretive approach, but in actual practice, it sounds fussy. In fact the entire first movement seems just a little out of focus. The adagio is very well done, with a real sense of contrast between the quiet opening and the restive middle section. In fact the slow movements of both concertos are the best things about these recordings. Alas, the rondo, though bustling and very busy, never generates the electricity this movement needs to resolve the dramatic tensions of all that has preceded it. Though it too has its fussy moments, the Op. 83 fares much better. There's a real sense of momentum in the first movement, and the allegretto is gracefully done without being in any way special. But only in the scherzo did I feel Hough cutting loose, unleashing the improvisational flair that I so admire in his other recordings. So, in the end, this Second is a very good performance, but in a highly competitive market, "very good" is just not good enough. But even if the Second were a better performance than it is, it would still be hard to recommend this set because of the sub-par D minor.

Apparently I represent a minority position on the Helene Grimaud recordings, so I have to caution you right from the get-go, you're listening to a voice crying in the wilderness. Could Grimaud's overblown, pretentious comments in the program booklet have turned some critics against the performances? "The B flat major is like a vast, elaborate memoir--the closest equivalent I could think of is Proust," she says at one point. To which I have to respond: "You've got to be kidding." I avoid reading any program notes before listening to the recording in question. But even when I do, I try not to hold any knuckleheaded remarks against the performer. After all, I'm not paying Grimaud to write; I'm paying her to play the piano--which, in this case, she does exceedingly well.

I liked both these performances right from the first, if only because Grimaud's prominent, expressive use of the left hand reminded me of Claudio Arrau. Like him, she uses a slower than usual tempo to construct the sound world of both works from the bottom end up, never a bad idea in Brahms. In general, I find her playing intense and concentrated, and yet supple and flowing. She's able to build and sustain the tension; the forward momentum never flags. As good as Hough is in the slow movements, I find Grimaud's sense of fantasy even more magical. The tranquility and calm at the end of the Andante is especially memorable. In the finale of both works, she gives us the feeling of risking everything, of throwing all caution to the wind.

The Grimaud recording also boasts far better orchestral support. Hough's Orchestra of Salzberg is an augmented chamber ensemble, and they simply cannot match the power and richness (or long historical connection to both works) of either the Bavarian Radio Symphony or the Vienna Philharmonic. As good as he is, Wigglesworth is clearly following Hough's lead. But in Andris Nelssons, Grimaud has a true collaborator, and the interweaving of piano and orchestra on these recordings does a better job of representing the symphonic nature of both works. Nelsons' detailed, expressive, and imaginative conducting suggests that he is a major Brahmsian. Clearly the Boston Symphony knew what it was doing when they recently appointed him as their future Music Director.

My admiration for Grimaud/Nelsons does not supplant my preference for Arrau/Giulini or Fleischer/Szell. But there's a problem. Currently the only acceptable remastering of the Arrau/Giulini performances is available in a nine disc EMI box set that also includes all of Giulini's concerto performances for that label. These are well worth having, but I can understand balking at the investment. The Fleischer/Szell recordings were originally made and released on the Epic label, and like most Epic recordings from that era they're bass-deprived and treble bright. Later remasterings have addressed this problem, but the sound here just isn't equal to the performances. In which case, this new release becomes highly tempting indeed. No problem with the sound here. In fact these are the best sounding, best-balanced recordings of the concertos I've ever heard. Highly recommended in spite of all the naysaying.

 

Performances:

Concerto No. 1

Hough:

Grimaud:

 

Concerto No. 2

Hough:

Grimaud:

 

 

Enjoyment

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Grimaud:

 

 

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