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Hyperion Records

CDA67961 - Brahms: The Piano Concertos
An der Ostsee (1911) by Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941)
Private Collection / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: January 2013
Salzburger Festspielhaus, Austria
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: December 2013
DISCID: 210B7F03 220B7404
Total duration: 97 minutes 53 seconds


'Stephen Hough's splendid recordings … a poetic player, he employs all the muscle these most arduous works demand, while losing none of the poetry. Some of his passage work is revelatory, with phrasing that is imaginative, but never mannered. Artur Schnabel once observed: ‘Many others can play the notes as well as me; it’s my pauses and rests that are the thing.’ So true and Stephen Hough proves it yet again, with a set fit to be placed alongside Emil Gilels’s one at the very top of the tree' (The Mail on Sunday)

'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 … the concertos call for a brilliant, interesting and capricious personality who will make them compelling as discourse. I cannot believe Brahms would have expected anything else' (Gramophone)

'Stephen Hough has proved himself a superb Brahms player in various discs of the solo piano music, and this very satisfying double album of the two Concertos confirms and augments his reputation. Clearly working in absolute rapport with Mark Wigglesworth … Hough brings an unusually wide range of keyboard colour to bear on Brahms's piano writing. Added to that his complete understanding of the broadest trajectory and subtlest nuances of these works is reflected in his subtle flexibility of tempo and dynamics to underline expressive points that in some other performances go for nothing … this admirable set richly deserves its five stars' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The way in which Hough and conductor Mark Wigglesworth drive the opening movement of the First Concerto to its conclusion is thrillingly physical; at the other extreme, the delicacy of his playing in the finale of the Second, and the lilt he brings to some of its episodes, are delights' (The Guardian) » More

'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's creations [Concerto No 1] … 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 sounds that is rich in detail, while providing a welcome true-to-life balance between piano and orchestra' (International Record Review) » More

'Hough 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 … 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 … both concertos are marvels of the repertory and Hough and the Mozarteum players polish their wonders anew' (The Times) » More

'Hough brings his famed dexterity to the bravura passages, but never sounds glitzy or showy. Indeed, the most rewarding aspect of both performances his his chamber-music-like interplay with the excellent Mozarteumorchester's soloists—the principal horn is glorious throughout … these familiar and oft-recorded works sound fresh minted. Brahms's concertos have rarely sounded more brilliant, energetic and innovative' (The Sunday Times) » More

'Hough’s account of the First Concerto is expansive and measured, finding the fire in the stormy opening Maestoso but also the delicacy and quietude in the central Adagio. The final rondo is a model of balance, completing a rather fine interpretation … there’s a broadness about the first movement of the Second, too, which in the event works very beautifully, especially in the exchanges between piano and horn and throughout brings out the romantic ardour … their way with the remaining movements is nothing but assured and convincing. The ‘tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo’ is executed with lightness and panache, the dialogue with cellist Marcus Pouget in the Andante is a delight and the Allegretto grazioso likewise' (International Piano) » More

'Was schon damals bei der Matinee live zu konstatieren war, bestätigt der Höreindruck nochmals eindrucksvoll und aufs Schönste: gleich im groß konzipierten, tragisch grundgetönten d-Moll-Erstlings op. 15, dessen Solopart Hough im Kopfsatz gleichermaßen so leidenschaftlich vollgriffig auf dem Steinway gestaltete, wie er sich auch in die dazu kontrastierenden Passagen entsprechend nachdenklich versenkte. Überaus subtile Töne findet Stephen Hough für den Einstieg ins Adagio … die Aufnahme ist eine Bereicherung der Diskographie, nicht nur, was Salzburgs Orchester betrifft. Und die Geldbörse wird obendrein geschont, denn beide CDs werden wohlfeil zum Preis einer einzigen angeboten' (DrehPunktKultur, Austria) » More

The Piano Concertos
Maestoso  [22'53]
Adagio  [13'28]
Allegro non troppo  [18'19]

This attractively priced double set is one of Stephen Hough’s most important recordings. ‘Britain’s greatest living pianist’ (The Mail on Sunday) is joined by the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg and international conductor Mark Wigglesworth in their Hyperion debut for Brahms’s Piano Concertos. These works are among the greatest in the genre, and shore up Brahms’s reputation as both a symphonist and a piano composer. Separated by twenty-two years and widely differing in their reception (the first was scorned and the second a huge success), they are monumental in scale, impassioned and truly romantic, forward-looking in form and requiring both great virtuosity and intimacy from the pianist. Stephen Hough has performed them in concert for many years to ecstatic acclaim: this new recording is surely one of his most desirable offerings.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In his lifetime and later Johannes Brahms was viewed as a conservative, composing in traditional forms and genres like the symphony, string quartet and concerto. The future of music appeared to belong to Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt and their disciples, who rejected the old forms and created works based on poetry, drama and literature. Brahms, wrote Liszt, belongs to ‘the posthumous party’ in music.

Was Brahms a backward-looking conservative? In some ways he was. But he was a great deal more. Despite his worshipful attitude toward the past, he still considered it part of his job to bring new ideas to his art. Examples are abundant in his music: restless harmonies that shocked the ears of his time; an involvement with popular and exotic music, especially with what was called the ‘gypsy’ or ‘Hungarian’ style; innovations in rhythm that in some respects anticipated jazz and Stravinsky. Among those using traditional Classical forms in his time, only Brahms realized how freely the old masters wielded those forms, and he did the same. His two piano concertos are prime examples of his highly personal integration of tradition and innovation.

The overriding approach in Brahms’s conception of a concerto was symphonic, on the grandest of scales. Compared to the smaller dimensions and expressive ambitions of the great concertos not only of Mozart and Beethoven, but of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Dvorák, Brahms’s are alpine epics. All Brahms’s concertos are supremely demanding on the soloist (or soloists), but the two piano concertos have little conventional virtuosic showing-off. Nor is the soloist always the centre of attention. In Brahms’s concertos the soloist is a participant in a dialogue—a spotlighted and nearly non-stop participant, but still part of a symphonic dialogue. In the piano concertos the keyboard style is grand and two-fisted, almost orchestral in itself.

Brahms’s approach is set in the opening pages of the Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15: massive and dramatic, its sound and its juxtaposition of D minor and B flat major echoing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The inspiration of this concerto was tragic and immediate. In September 1853 the twenty-year-old Brahms knocked on the door of Robert and Clara Schumann’s home in Düsseldorf and played them a few of his pieces. When he left, Schumann wrote in his journal: ‘Visit from Brahms (a genius).’ Soon after the Schumanns had met Brahms, Robert wrote an article called ‘New Paths’ in which he declared this unknown student not only a genius but the coming saviour of German music. From Robert’s article many thing flowed. Suddenly the whole of musical Europe knew the name Brahms. But Brahms understood all too well what Schumann had unintentionally done: thrown him up on a pedestal before he had proved himself.

As Brahms was contemplating that dilemma he received news of something far worse: Robert Schumann had jumped into the Rhine in a suicide attempt. Robert was pulled out of the river and placed in an asylum, where he died three years later. During that period Brahms and Clara fell in love (more or less unspoken), and he began to try and cope with the creative burden Robert had laid on him. It was during those years that he painfully and painstakingly composed the First Piano Concerto.

This composition appears to have been begun amid the nightmare of Schumann’s collapse. Within a week of Robert’s suicide attempt, Brahms had drafted three movements of a two-piano sonata in D minor. In the following months the sonata turned into a draft of a symphony that refused to take wing. Finally he began over again with just the first movement, refashioning it as a piano concerto. This movement was his first piece for orchestra and by far the most ambitious thing he had attempted. Immediately he found himself struggling with writing for orchestra and managing a gigantic, complex form. Yet he kept pounding away at the piece. After nearly five excruciating years, he finished the three movements of the D minor Piano Concerto in spring 1858.

What he created remains one of the longest, most powerful and most formidable of all concertos. It begins on a note of high drama, an ominous low D in the basses and snarling horns, with wild shivering trills above. That opening was the most turbulent in the repertoire at the time, with an expressive urgency that Brahms rarely attempted again and never surpassed. Surely the impetus for this work came from his youthful turmoil. If the vertiginous opening is applied to the image of a desperate man leaping into the water, it is almost cinematically apt.

After the searing opening pages, the monumental first movement unfolds in an atmosphere of high drama, yet still not in programmatic but in abstract terms, a version of the usual concerto first-movement form—exposition, development, recapitulation and coda. Through a welter of themes the pianist has to portray something like all the contending characters in a drama. This remains one of the longest of concerto movements, physically and mentally one of the most demanding on the soloist.

Brahms told Clara Schumann that the gentle and hymn-like slow movement was ‘a tender portrait’ of her. Much of it is unforgettably beautiful. Here, pictured in sound, is the Clara the young Brahms fell in love with and never stopped loving, even though he remained a bachelor to the end. Written in a simple ternary form (this and the finale have cadenzas), the second movement perhaps cost him less trouble than the first.

Then Brahms had to contend with the last movement. He decided on a traditional conclusion—a racing, rhythmically dynamic rondo: ABACABA. The last movements of Classical concertos were traditionally light, brilliant and vivacious rather than ponderous, and this one follows suit. Desperate to get the piece done, Brahms cribbed from the finale of Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto No 3. ‘The two finales’, Charles Rosen wrote, ‘may be described and analysed to a great extent as if they were the same piece.’ The sound is Brahms, though, not Beethoven. The tone is a non-tragic D minor, youthful high spirits with a driving, demonic, Hungarian/gypsy cast. Whether in the end the finale resolves the questions and tensions raised in the first movement is a subject of long debate, but there is no question that it makes for a thrilling conclusion.

The premiere, with Brahms at the piano, was received politely but with quiet perplexity in Hanover. In its dark tone, its symphonic style and epic scale, this was a new kind of concerto. Then came the disastrous second performance in conservative Leipzig. At the end Brahms was hissed off the stage. In the wake of the Leipzig fiasco he broke off an engagement—the only one he ever had—with a young singer, and began to give up his hopes of being a true composer–pianist.

With the D minor Concerto Brahms began his orchestral career with a work that shared something of the scope and tone—and key—of the symphony that ended Beethoven’s orchestral career. The results were powerful and original, and Brahms knew it, but his inexperience left its mark on the piece and he knew that too. He vowed not to take on something of that size and ambition again until he knew he was ready; he would not feel ready for another eighteen years, when he finished the First Symphony. But by the 1870s, he had the satisfaction of hearing this impassioned product of his youth cheered in concert halls all over Europe.

If one could pick a handful of works to exemplify why Brahms has captured listeners’ imaginations over the years, those works might include the four-movement Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major, Op 83, completed in 1881 at the height of his maturity. Here all the elements of Brahms’s art come together. There is the joining of the grandly Olympian with the intimately songful. There is the virtuoso command of large-scale musical architecture. More subtly, in the Second Concerto one finds on display the singular mysteriousness of Brahms: a music at once powerfully communicative and elusive.

The B flat major Concerto begins with one of the most beautiful movements in Brahms, its expressive import without any of his familiar touches of tragedy or fatalism. The piano textures range from massive to diaphanous, interwoven with rich, symphonic orchestral textures. The piano steadily changes roles, its music moving from long unaccompanied solos to lacy filigree accompanying the orchestra. While there are towering proclamations and moments of drama, the overall tone is lofty and magisterial. The opening horn-call reminds us of Brahms’s love of the outdoors, of climbing alpine peaks. Next comes the movement Brahms described to a friend as a ‘tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo’. When Brahms said things like that he was usually joking; the D minor scherzo (the only movement to depart from B flat major) is immense, dark-toned, and impassioned, with a touch of gypsy tone. Brahms’s only explanation for the scherzo was another joke: the opening movement was so ‘harmless’, he said, that he needed a strong contrast for the second.

The slow movement begins with one of those sighing, exquisite cello melodies that Brahms invented and owned. Here is one of the innovations of this work: a slow movement of a piano concerto in which the first section is dominated by a solo cello; only in the middle does the piano come to the fore, spinning out languid quasi-improvisatory garlands. Now the scoring is intimate, chamber-like—another kind of contrast to the first movement. The concerto comes to rest on a rondo finale of marvellous lightness, whimsy and dancing rhythms, again with gypsy touches, contrasting the monumental first two movements and the gently wandering embroidery of the third. For the listener, the charms of the finale are its glittering instrumental colours and ravishing melodies.

As man and musician Brahms was at once a loner and absolutely part of the musical mainstream. As far as he was concerned, his work was directed primarily to the music-loving middle class; if that audience rejected his work, then he was a failure. At the same time, as the concertos show, he was fearless in issuing challenges to his public and his performers. His Wagnerian critics were partly right when they complained that Brahms had no world-historical agenda. For him music was a language spoken from the heart that goes to the heart of each listener. It is in those terms that this intensely private man, who loved few and was himself hard to love, is entering his second century as one of the most beloved of composers.

Jan Swafford © 2013

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