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Hyperion Records

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An der Ostsee (1911) by Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941)
Private Collection / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDA67961
Recording details: January 2013
Salzburger Festspielhaus, Austria
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: December 2013
Total duration: 48 minutes 51 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

Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major, Op 83
Summer 1881

Allegro non troppo  [18'19]

Other recordings available for download
Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Litton (conductor)   This recording is not available for download
Vladimir Horowitz (piano), Arturo Toscanini (conductor), Orchestra of the International Music Festival, Lucerne
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The B flat Concerto manifests many paradoxes of scale and utterance. The piano part is less overtly virtuosic than in the First Concerto, but presents the soloist with even greater technical challenges. The solo part, especially in the first movement, also represents the culmination of everything Brahms had learned as a lifelong connoisseur of pianistic technique. Yet this huge concerto is more like chamber music writ large, a continuation and expansion of his approach in his piano quartets and Horn Trio, with many effects of intimate instrumental dialogue (horn and piano in the first movement; cello and piano in the third). Despite this intimacy of discourse—witness the very opening, growing from a horn-call of pure romance, answered by a piano solo of musing reverie—the concerto is nevertheless built on ample, quasi-symphonic lines, with four movements instead of three. And the first two of them, at least, are full of heroic bravura: hear the grand tutti the orchestra launches when it gets hold of the horn–piano theme. The whole work displays a leonine combination of gentleness and massive strength—but strength which is held in reserve or employed for athletic relaxation.

Thus Brahms seems to meld the principles of concerto and symphony—especially in the spacious first movement, Allegro non troppo, which grows organically into a grand tonal network of interconnected ideas. The piano does not merely repeat the themes of the orchestral tutti but engages in a wide-ranging dialogue by continually varying them. Despite the generally optimistic tone, darkness and passion have their places—the former represented by sudden glimpses of distant tonal areas, the latter by the more choleric of the piano’s monologues. After this the D minor scherzo, Allegro appassionato, hints at real tragedy. Its first subject has an impetuous zeal, while the second is a haunting tune full of submissive pathos. An angry development then leads to the trio section’s grand, Handelian D major theme before the scherzo music returns, urgent and volatile to the last.

The spirit of chamber music is most marked in the Andante slow movement, which is framed by a deeply expressive cello solo, a kind of sublime lullaby which many have seen as an anticipation of the song Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer (‘My sleep grows ever quieter’) that Brahms was to compose in 1886. The piano never has this tune, but muses upon its harmonic background in filigree passagework and decoration of the utmost plasticity. The overall impression is of self-communing improvisation, where motivic development dissolves into the stream of consciousness. There is a central episode, dominated by reflective piano arpeggios and clarinets in thirds, that might seem an exercise in pure sonority. Yet what the clarinets play is an exact quotation from Brahms’s song Todessehnen (‘Yearning for death’), composed three years earlier but not published until 1882 (as Op 86 No 6)—an unusual self-quotation for this composer, confirming the deep personal significance of the movement.

The finale, Allegretto grazioso, releases the accumulated tensions in a playful rondo, strewing tunes around (many in Brahms’s beloved Hungarian rhythms) like unconsidered pearls. This is a complex fusion of rondo and sonata form that wears its intricacy with insouciance. The piano summons up lilting, instantly memorable, themes in seemingly artless profusion. Yet there is immense artfulness here: not only in the many subtle rhythmic contrasts, but also in the ‘gypsy’ languor of the second-subject tune, in the Mozartian wit of the epigrams bandied about between soloist and orchestra, and in the easy confidence of scoring that allows Brahms to write grand, full-hearted tuttis without once requiring trumpets or drums.

It may not be implausible to hear this concerto as a kind of pianistic autobiography—by a composer for whom the piano, and piano music, lay at the centre of his creativity. The first movement’s quality of carefully structured improvisation plausibly presents a portrait of the young virtuoso, responding to the voice of Nature (the horn theme) with a hugely confident display of pianistic technique. But the scherzo intervenes, in D minor—for Brahms a key of catastrophic associations (the First Piano Concerto, begun in the aftermath of Schumann’s suicide attempt and incarceration in an asylum, makes this clear). However the robust and enlivening ‘Handelian’ trio perhaps represents the saving grace of study, the power of the music of the past to strengthen and stabilize the composer—as Brahms’s Baroque studies had strengthened him, issuing at length in his Op 24 Handel Variations.

The slow movement would then indicate a period of withdrawal, of self-communing at the keyboard, almost of self-effacement. In Brahms’s own solo output this mood is most clearly felt in the long series of late pieces which had begun during the 1870s with his Op 76 Klavierstücke. The wonderful main theme, however, is entrusted to the solo cello: the piano muses round it, decorates it, dialogues with the cello as a subordinate partner. The extent to which this movement resembles a cello–piano duet suggests (quite apart from the tenderness of the main idea) some imaginative link with Clara Schumann. Perhaps Brahms was thinking of the Romanze slow movement of her own youthful Piano Concerto of 1835, which is even more of a cello–piano duo. The song-quotation, too, is probably connected with his feelings for her, especially where the text (by Max von Schenkendorf) speaks of ‘the secret heavy burden’ on the poet’s soul, which can only be lifted by union with ‘the sisterly being’ of the beloved. The main tune’s anticipation of Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer then fits into a potentially tragic context, for they are both songs about death, or the yearning for it. But the finale, with its Hungarian rhythms, its relaxed evocation of dance and song, counterbalances this by releasing an entirely different aspect of Brahms’s pianism: his sizeable output of music for enjoyment and relaxation, most notably the Hungarian Dances and Liebeslieder-Walzer. This finale remains of the highest artistic quality (and is no relaxation for the pianist); but the popular elements blent in it are essential to any rounded portrait of its composer.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2006

Other albums featuring this work
'Brahms: Piano Concerto No 2' (CDA67550)
Brahms: Piano Concerto No 2
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67550  This album is not available for download
'Brahms: Piano Concerto No 2' (SACDA67550)
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'Brahms: Piano Concertos' (APR6001)
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MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99 APR6001  for the price of 1 — Download only  

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