As Max Reger confessed to Georg, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen "My concerto is going to be misunderstood for years. The musical language is too austere and too serious; it is, so to speak, a pendant to Brahms's D minor Piano Concerto [number 1]. The public will need some time to get used to it" (Niger Simeone, 2011: p. 3). Reger's letter was written in February 1912, about fourteen months after Arthur Nikisch gave the premiere performance of the work in the Leipzig Gewandhaus on December 15, 1910, with Frieda Kwast-Hodapp as the soloist. The critics tore it apart, and Reger never recovered from the bitterness from that reception. Even so, the public was pleased with it and pianists likewise saw merits in the work and took it into their repertoire. One of the pianists was Rudolf Serkin, who long admired Reger's music and performed the piece in January 1922 in Vienna under Furtwängler and on November 16, 1945 in Minneapolis under Dmitri Mitropoulos (a highly successful US premiere incidentally). George Szell resisted Serkin's proposal to perform the work, but Eugene Ormandy, always that enterprising maverick of a conductor, joined up with Serkin and recorded the piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1959 under CBS, a milestone recording in its day.
I long have a particular fondness for Serkin's recording: the recording that is not the state of the art even on subsequent compact disc re-issues. But the eloquence, the power, the bravura in Serkin's playing always manage to penetrate. His rendition of the slow movement is quite tender and Ormandy and the Philadelphia offer absorbing, piercing support. However, between Serkin's recording (1959) and Marc-Andre Hamelin's (2010), it is fascinating to listen how different the pianists are in this monumental piece. Love Derwinger (BIS), for example, takes the opposite, more reflective, nostalgic view than the rest I had heard (and read of). He is a consummate communicator with the instrument, but not one to dazzle. In truth, I tend to find him closer to the spirit of the concerto and of Reger than any I'd heard so far on record (with moving support by Leif Segerstam and the Norrkoping Symphony). His take on the second movement (Largo con gran espressione) is the most elegantly done with an enthralling sense of longing and vulnerability. Marc-Andre Hamelin, like Barry Douglas (RCA), however, offers the other extreme (and it's interesting to note how similar their styles are in this work: edgy, angst-ridden, but not as probing and emotionally penetrating as Derwinger). Douglas' playing in the first movement has a certain forebodingness to it than all that I've heard so far: exhilarating in presentation yet noticeably more protesting and darker. Here, there is no doubt that after the sharp, imposing, chordal entry at 1:43, would Hamelin's vitality and drama in the playing be the story of the day. He is a shade less thrilling than Douglas, and on the quieter passages does he, like Douglas and Gerhard Oppitz (Koch Schwann), presses forward more so than Derwinger, although to me no more and no less telling than the latter: the approaches that are equally loving and tender on their own terms. The coda of that first movement is urgent, thrilling, and superlative in this recording, although I'll give the edge to Douglas and Janowski with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France with their added sense of drama and tension. Hamelin is quite divine in the slow second movement: dreamy, reflective, a sense of wonder, if not quite as pronounced in the sense of lost and yearning as Derwinger. Douglas is more closer to Derwinger in spirit compared to Hamelin. But the exquiteness in the playing by all involved, particularly at the closing bars, is mind capturing: the poetics ever so present. Hamelin's account of the last movement is nicely chic and clever, but never insensitive. The orchestral support by Volkov and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra is stunning here if lacking the compelling grittiness of Janowski's orchestra (with some of the inner details that are more decernable in RCA's more dryer, analytical sound). At the end of the day though, it comes down to personal taste is far as this great work is concerned, for these recordings have their own arresting virtues in their own rights. I will always cling on to the CBS,BIS, and the RCA recordings, given how personal and committed these performances are. That said, this current account is a triumph in every way and in its own way.
For the likes of me, I am hard-pressed to see why Strauss' Burleske (1885-1886) is not a mainstay in the repertoire. It is an ingenious piece, and although it is a whimsical homage to Brahms' Second Concerto in B-flat, it has all the blueprints of the Strauss he was to become. It is as scintillating in terms of contrasts and explicit cleverness as "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" Strauss wrote a decade later. The piano writing is highly effective in its wittiness, humor, and warmth and Hamelin matches those attributes with plenty of character and style. Douglas has a more flamboyant, dazzling take in this masterpiece that is equally enjoyable in its own terms. And this is the sort of work that's something of a field day for the featured orchestras (the Berlin Radio Symphony under Ilan Volkov and Janowski's Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France). Needless to say, they have quite literally knocked themselves out in their respective recordings, particularly their timpanists. It is a fun, entertaining listening, and should do much to convince many others as to its value.
It is really unfortunate that the aforementioned RCA album that had the identical programme of the works featured here is now deleted (it stayed in the market not long after its 1998 release). That said, this disc is excellent in every way. The recording has both venerable clarity and depth, with every detail that is nicely caught (definitely up Hyperion's alley). Nigel Simeone's booklet essay, meanwhile, is commendably deep and scholarly. In other words, it is again Hyperion's high musical presentation that remains unfailingly artful, deep, penetrating, and in the end, innovative and thought-provoking.