Two eyebrows might be raised at Stephen Hough’s album. There’s the cover painting: a coastal scene from the Russian expressionist Jawlensky, not the first painter to come to mind when thinking of Brahms. Your other eyebrow might shoot up over of the choice of the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra—although there’s no reason why they can’t summon the heft that Brahms’s concertos require.
There’s no surprise, though, that the pianist is Stephen Hough. He has been 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. His way with the scherzo may be over-earnest, but the pay-off arrives with the finale, which is light and sparkling. 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. The reverberations of the entire orchestra are equally slow to die. The conductor Mark Wigglesworth scrupulously prepared his musicians, and their medium-weight sound offers the best of both worlds: chamber intimacy if needed, but also clear textures whenever the notes thicken. As for drama, the orchestra launches the first concerto with spectacular tension, urged forward by timpani tremors as baleful as rolling thunder.
In the recording balance Hough is placed forward enough to display his mettle without ever hammering the listener. In No 1, the breadth of his playing in phrasing and pacing impresses the most and if his finale never properly caps the argument, that drawback was built into the work. Not that anyone at this date should be wagging a finger at Brahms: both concertos are marvels of the repertory and Hough and the Mozarteum players polish their wonders anew.