BRAHMS Piano Concertos
The best recordings of the Brahms concertos are collaborative ventures in which the finest pianists are matched by the finest orchestras and conductors. Good working partnerships are not enough, particularly in No 1: there has to be aspiration and collaboration at the deepest level. It’s obvious this is something Stephen Hough and Mark Wigglesworth understand, even if their results sometimes fall short. Yes, the soloist is the man we’ve come to hear but setting the scene for him, at the beginning of the D minor Concerto, is the least of it: the work has to be set ablaze. Getting the music off the page – where Brahms had yet to achieve mastery in his orchestral writing – isn’t easy. Wigglesworth is pacy and taut in rhythm, and for me the leaner sonorities of the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra are welcome after the deep pile into which we’re so often invited to sink by more celebrated European orchestras. But no, the Salzburgers are not the Berlin Philharmonic.
It’s probably true that performances of these pieces have become slower since Brahms’s day. You may agree that the pursuit of titanic Brahms often results in heaviness and a sullen, lumbering quality. The impression I have here is of readings that have divested themselves of excess baggage and are lighter on their feet, in the finales especially, which are opened up to areas of freshness and playfulness that Schumann too liked to inhabit. Weight is never a problem; there is just a greater variety of it.
No 2 is, I think, the more complete achievement, by a small margin, with spontaneity to the fore and characterisation aided by small freedoms on the soloist’s part which are not indulgences or quantitative easings but licences one is happy to grant in the interests of grace to such an exceptional player. If you’re more used to Brahms over hedge and ditch in the quick movements of the B flat Concerto they may surprise you, and I did wonder about the constant flux of tempi in the scherzo, but 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. Forget talk of the concertos as works with piano obbligato – they call for a brilliant, interesting and capricious personality who will make them compelling as discourse. I cannot believe Brahms would have expected anything else, whatever the birth pangs he suffered over the first movement of No 1.
A sample? Try the slow movement of No 2, and be drawn into it by Hough’s shaping of the first solo paragraph and his command of line. Admire the greater range of sound than we are usually given and stay with it for the stillness and magic of the passage with the two clarinets (from around 6'20") where Brahms, becalmed in B major, quotes from one of his songs: you hold your breath. Alas, the solo cello, on re-entering soon afterwards as the tonality shifts back to B flat, is unmagical and doesn’t appear to have been listening. Such blemishes apart, for me this is one of the finest versions of No 2 of recent years, on a par with that by Nicholas Angelich.
As a double album of both pieces, however, a closer recent comparison would be with Hélène Grimaud and Andris Nelsons. Arriving in a cloud of PR, she is one-dimensional and limited in sensibility, not missing an opportunity to hammer the music and to take – for example – the finale of the D minor by the scruff of its neck. In the booklet interview she enumerates her ideas ‘about’ the music but seems to have rather few about the notes themselves from which the music is made. And yet I do like her and Nelsons in the slow movement of No 1 (‘like a prayer’), where they reach down into it and are weightier than Hough and Wigglesworth, with their own ideas, who perhaps see it as a vision of peace but fail to sustain mystery and softness, and are distant and reserved, even a tad featureless. I have a few reservations additionally about their Maestoso opening movement. I daresay most people will, about most versions of it – we are back to collaborative ventures and, in this instance, to the difficulties of achievement in music of rare ambition and purity of feeling. Pianists of Hough’s calibre are drawn back to this varied Romantic discourse that throws open windows on to nature and song as well as articulating heroic drama and occasionally hurling boulders around. I’ve no doubt he will record No 1 again one day. For the moment there is plenty to enjoy.