The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 53
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The Reger Piano Concerto has a formidable reputation - dense, harmonically complex and with far too many notes for the average pianist. Who better then to decipher it than Marc-André Hamelin? In his hands, this rarely recorded behemoth reveals both passion and a lyricism so often lost in lesser performances. He is wonderfully partnered by Ilan Volkov and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, who share the pianist's desire to elucidate an often misunderstood work. While the Reger concerto comes from the end of his career, the Strauss Burleske is a product of that composer's prodigious youth. This ebullient work has long been a Hamelin 'party-piece,' and he plays it with an unmatched brilliance that surely captures the essence of this humorous music and will have listeners on the edges of their seats.
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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.
Of all the German late-Romantics, Max Reger is the hardest to love. His textures are thick, his themes unmemorable and his dense counterpoint impenetrable. His best pieces are sets of variations on themes by other composers: Mozart, Hiller and Bach. Left to his own devices, as in this Brahmsian concerto from 1910, his worst habits come to the fore, including haste: he composed and scored the 38-minute monster in a matter of weeks. Contemporary critics were scathing and rightly so. Out of those 38 minutes at least 30 are a complete waste of time, including the entire 3rd movement where the soloist flails about like a wounded animal, trapped in thickets of endless chromatic sequences. The unprepared final D major chord is ridiculous.
I have owned an RCA disc of this coupling for years (rarely played) with the excellent Irish pianist Barry Douglas. I would have thought Hamelin and Volkov would trump him, or at least clarify Reger's textures. Instead they take to the work with a sledgehammer, and Hyperion's opaque sound makes matters worse. Hamelin rushes Strauss's Burleske (a much better and shorter piece), proving no match for the light-fingered Thibaudet on Decca.
I'm not a huge fan of Strauss' Burleske, so I won't comment, however I love this disc - and frankly, I think I love the Reger too, difficult though it certainly is!