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Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2, Four Piano Pieces - Hamelin/Litton

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2, Four Piano Pieces - Hamelin/Litton

Hyperion  SACDA67550

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major Op. 83, Four Piano Pieces Op. 119

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton (conductor)

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Review by John Miller - September 2, 2006

You wait ages for a Brahms second Piano concerto, and like buses, two come along at once! There has been some apprehension in the Forum about the quality of the Hyperion recording, after the controversial previous set of Rachmaninov concertos from Dallas. Personally, I found that by playing the latter discs at a higher level than normal, the so-called distant piano in MC became realistically placed as if from a seat in the mid-stalls, with a well-defined, sonorous and well-spread orchestra behind it. I directly compared one of the Rachmaninov disc with the new Brahms at the same volume. Certainly the Brahms requires playing at the same high volume level, as at lower levels it lacks punch and hangs around the centre speaker. At the high level, the recording is extremely natural. The piano is further forward in the mix, and sounds as though one is about 3 rows from the front in the stalls. There is notably less hall reverberation, and this may be because the Brahms was captured at a live performance, whereas the Rachmaninovs were a mixture of live and empty hall recordings. The audience for the Brahms, incidentally, apaprt from providing accoustical absorbance, are remarkably silent! Summing up, the Hyperion engineers seem to have listened to comments about a distant piano sound in their former concerto recordings in the Dallas hall, and produced a Brahms 2 which is rich in detail, dynamic range and realistic instrumental timbres. My Marantz player display indicates that the MC layer is 5.1, although sometimes the sub channel light comes on where a recording is stated to be 5.0 - I suspect this is an error in the DSD header. There is no indication I could find in the excellent notes or sleeve if this is a 5.0 recording, but there is plenty of low bass which the bass-management system will send to a sub if connected. I left half a star off the sonic rating because the sense of depth in the orchestra was not as well focussed as on the very best I've heard. The stereo mix is fine, typical of Hyperion's Red Book discs, but more detailed.

Now to the performance. I heard a memorable version of this work by Gilels at an Edinburgh Festival concert some years ago, and Hamelin has surpassed that for me, revealed many new aspects of the music. His combination of formidable technique and an ability to rise to the emotions of the music are ideal for this great work of Brahms, in which he sums up the extent of his knowledge of piano technique at the time of writing, and indulges his seemingly endless melodic gift. It is full of stark contrasts, which Litton, Hamelin and the orchestra conspire to make the most of, perhaps aided by the frisson of a live performance.
The uniquely tranquil opening of huge first movement's symphonic structure is ravishingly played by the horn and piano, and Litton demonstrates clearly how this seed melody is re-thought and metamorphosed in texture and dynamic at each of its re-appearances. There is an excellent sense of momentum carrying us through the fecund invention of this movement, leading to imposing rhetorical climaxes falling into intimate chamber-style interludes. The elan and precision of Hamelin's passage work is stunning: he never makes it feel like note-spinning or padding, bringing out countermelodies and joyfully topping the orchestra in full cry. An enthralling first movement.
The second movement plunges us into a dark and passionate gypsy melody on strings, and here I am delighted to hear the double-basses really digging into their syncopated low notes - wonderful if you have a good sub-woofer. The lyrical heart of the work lies in the third movement, beginning with a solo cello and piano dialogue. Surely in this movement Brahms reveals the emotional effects of his impossible love of Clara Schumann. All the performers are deeply involved here.
The final movement is about Hungarian dances, and Hamelin and the orchestra start off with a wonderfully lilting tune, as light as thistle-down, but phrased with a knowing wink and humour which I don't ever recall hearing before. I couldn't help tapping my feet, swooning with the gypsy strings and sharing the sheer good time which the players were having. In short, an exceptional Brahms No.2.

To finish the disk, Hyperion give us the set of late piano pieces of Op 119, recorded beautifully in Potton Hall, Suffolk. These pieces are quite difficult for amateurs to play, both interpretively and technically. It is wonderful to hear a great pianist such as Hamelin play them for us. They are far more than a make-weight.

Copyright © 2006 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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stars stars stars

Review by John Broggio - September 23, 2006

A hard disc to sum up - my feelings turn, almost phrase by phrase, from admiration to frustration and back again.

In the opening of the first movement, the first impression of Marc-Andre Hamelin's rubato is that it is trying too hard for attention and Andrew Litton almost succeeds in grinding the Dallas SO to a halt before Hamelin rests the tempo back. Throughout one feels as though Hamelin & Litton don't see completely eye-to-eye in their conception; Hamelin through his technical perfection threatens to reduce some of Brahms' writing to Lisztian flickers of pianistic brilliance without the intellectual backing that the score reveals. At the same time Litton and his players sound curiously reticent (which I think is a combination both of their doing and the recording team) and overly determined that every single piano note should ride on top of the orchestra. This seems to be the critical problem here - there is not the symphonic partnership so clearly implied in the structure of the work and the writing employed by Brahms; this is treated as Rachmaninov or Liszt and the piano is far too dominant even when it is clearly meant to be accompanying.

In the second movement, the orchestra seems to have found its fortissimo voice on a more regular basis but they still seem afraid of using all their reserves of power in case their slick-gloss sound becomes edgy in the slightest - the sense of reserve doesn't quite seem appropriate in one of the most stormy movements Brahms ever wrote. The approach employed thus far comes into its own in the wonderful slow movement; I had hoped that the orchestral response would have differed between movements much more than it does in this reading. The backwards balance of the orchestra (or are they being far too polite?) returns despite the glorious playing of Hamelin.

Overall one misses a certain level of excitement that is combined with profundity - this recording is certainly no match for Gilels/BPO/Jochum on RBCD from a musical standpoint. So, the concerto has many felicitous moments but isn't the ideal vehicle for the type of musical partnership that has been recorded here; a good place holder but a place holder none the less for me.

As to the recorded sound, it is very beautiful and quite clear but with some the orchestra curiously reticent far too often - this is, to my ears, a combination of balancing the piano too loudly in the recording room and then Litton instructing the orchestra to do likewise. A shame. No applause from the concert hall has been left in for the concerto (indeed one would never suspect that it was a concert recording.)

The solo music is rather more successful in that there is nothing for Hamelin's (wonderful) playing to obscure. However, no matter how pristine the presentation from the recording team and Hamelin alike, there is the inescapable feeling that this is not completely understood and certainly doesn't move me like it has under the hands of, say, Radu Lupu. Mainly it is the lack of dynamic contrast is what determines this impression which is not helped by the bright (dare I say "American"?) sound of the Steinway and recording.

(Purchased)

Copyright © 2006 John Broggio and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Multichannel):

stars stars

Review by Mark Novak - November 7, 2006

My high expectations for this release were not met. My primary issues are with the conducting. Truth be told, I have never been a big fan of Litton's conducting and there is nothing hear to make me change my mind. It's just plain dull. Hamelin does his best to bring out the inherent drama of this huge concerto but he is consistently foiled by Litton's conducting. A pity. The solo piano pieces are a nice fill-up but certainly not enough to redeem this disk. There are many Brahm's PC2 that far outshine this performance. Of recent vintage, I really enjoy the Friere/Chailly on rbcd (2 cd's with both pno ctos). Now THAT has very good solo playing and FANTASTIC condusting and orchestral playing. Good sound to boot. Get that instead and enjoy a PC1 along with PC2.

A few comments on sound. The piano is too prominent in the mix (as is so typical of concerto recordings). The orchestra is depicted pretty well in a decently-sized acoustic. Its just not very exciting (but I think that is mostly the conducing).

Copyright © 2006 Mark Novak and HRAudio.net

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Sonics (Stereo):

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Comments (2)
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Comment by Adrian Quanjer - November 18, 2019 (1 of 2)

When I started collecting SACD’s I had little experience with hi-res sound quality. Now I know better. Listening the other day to this recording of Brahms’ second piano concerto my first thought was: ‘No wonder Hyperion have gone out of Super Audio business’. The sound was as bad as Mark Werlin describes in his review. Unfocused, narrow, emotionless, with the piano unrealistically up-front and tympany sounding like thunder instead of sticks on a drum.

Moreover, I feel that this live recording was not Marc-André Hamelin’s best day, struggling with difficult passagework. In short: An unfortunate buy. Like other misfortunes having come my way, being too eager to fill up my shelves for the new medium (early Philips and DGG, being no more than hastily remastered versions of existing repertoire in order to provide sufficient software for the newly developed hardware, with probably the worst ever sounding Scheherazade Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Borodin, Balakirev - Gergiev).

I went back to my preferred RBCD version recorded live at the South Bank with Kovacevich, the London Philharmonic and Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting (EMI Classics 1994). What a difference! I happily took the ‘glare’ of the strings as a small price to pay for an outstanding account.

Fact now is that, apart from older, single layer remastered versions, there is no real hi-res multi-channel version available. Isn’t it high time for any of the-known-by-us-all quality labels to grace us with a new recording, and why not of both 1 and 2?

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - November 24, 2019 (2 of 2)

re my earlier comment: I should have said Mark Novak instead of Mark Werlin. Sorry Mark.