My own familiarity with the Dvořák Piano Concerto of 1876 derives from a recording by Frantisek Maxian and Vaclav Talich—wonderful playing of an edition by pedagogue Vilem Kurz (1872-1945), amending a “concerto for two right hands.” Rudolf Firkusny, too, performed the abridged version, recording it with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. So, whatever the innate fluency and often Bohemian charm of the piece, it maintained a reputation for its awkward pianism, its lack of virtuoso bravura, and its rarity in performance. Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) altered our perception of the work, reverting to the uncut, original edition and subsequently performing it with Kondrashin and recording it with Carlos Kleiber. Now, the tendency is for pianists to perform the original version as a matter of course, adjusting its idiosyncratic demands to a fluent, poetic realization that makes us question why the work ever fell out of favor.
The innate warmth of the music recommends it immediately, from its string announcement of the primary tune into the equally ingenuous second theme, which the composer will harmonize brilliantly. Stephen Hough makes beauty of tone his primary ingredient in selling this work, which has already gleaned adherents like Boris Barere. So much of the melodic content seems obligated to Brahms, it hardly surprises us that Brahms did in fact admire the piece for its “easily shaped fantasy” that responds so much to the sounds of nature. The D Major Adagio sostenuto has the Birmingham ensemble as responsive as Hough is grandly poetic. Curiously unvaried in its rhythmic impulse, the music tends to mesmerize us into flights of lyrical fantasy within narrow harmonic limits, a kind of experiment with step-wise sequences. At last, Allegro con fuoco, Dvořák launches into a spirited Bohemian dance with only a trace of Slavic melancholy. Again, with the original edition restored, Dvořák reveals moments of wry antiphons between the solo and the orchestra before breaking out into the heroic mode for his coda. The shared energy between Hough and conductor Nelsons—making his Hyperion debut—remains palpably intense.
Few surprises await us in the 1846 Schumann Concerto, with its biographical allusions to Clara Wieck. The performance by Hough and Nelsons seems admirable enough, lyrical and eminently polished. The cello sonority in the brief Intermezzo quite captivates us, and the poignant piano chords prior to the launch of the Allegro vivace enjoy a pregnant pause. The occasional appearance of fughetta passagework alludes once more to the strong musical bond—overt and in anagram form—between Schumann and his beloved Clara Wieck. Hough performs with an easy grace that completely subsumes the tricky metrics of the last movement and the often grueling aspects of the first movement cadenza to his seamless vision of the score. The Birmingham strings, winds, and horns add a definite luster to the proceedings, and the union of these two concertos, while unusual, in retrospect has proven eminently successful.