A Splendid Contemporary B-flat Major Brahms Concerto From Lars Vogt

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

brahmsvogt

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Together with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, Lars Vogt–in his fifth year heading the orchestra across the shore from Newcastle–got to record the Brahms piano concertos for Ondine. Anyone who reads a chamber orchestra’s and Brahms’ name on the same CD cover and might briefly flinch, fearing undernourished, pseudo-historically informed performances with an economically expedient small band–conducted from the piano at that (another couple thousands in savings!)–need not worry.

Yes, this performance of the B-flat major concerto is notably a child of our times: It is svelte Brahms and transparent too, but still with plenty of muscle, which isn’t on display throughout, but comes to the fore where needed. Compared to the kind of Brahms from even just a few decades ago, this is purged of some excess and trimmed of fat, but it comes to a healthy halt before turning anorexic.

In and of itself that’s hardly enough to compete with the innumerable splendid performances out there, historic and more recent. Buchbinder/Harnoncourt sounds more traditional and celebrates Brahms with the (expected?) breadth–and very tastefully at that. The Northern Sinfonia can’t touch the wonderfully dark sound of the Czech Philharmonic with Ivan Moravec under Jirí Belohlávek, which sounds like an old oak chest smells. But then, no other orchestra can. The way Eugen Jochum custom-tailors the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing around that of his soloist, Emil Gilels, also remains unsurpassed.

But it speaks to Vogt–who doesn’t shy away from a robust and stern touch in the outer movements–and his Sinfonia that no amount of comparison makes this recording appear any less attractive. The fresh-sounding orchestra has a natural forward drive but isn’t hectic or jittery. Nor do you hear any exaggerations or the type of self-consciously unsubtle “nuance” that often passes for interpretation these days. This recording–as does that of Marc-André Hamelin with Andrew Litton, to mention a recent and also excellent account–goes to show that good playing without ostentatious fingerprints need not end up sounding anonymous.

In the olden LP and CD days, the Handel Variations on this disc might have been considered the filler. In the streaming-age, playtime has become meaningless–and in any case, this isn’t an afterthought; interpretively, it might well be considered the lead attraction. There is a certain voracity with which Vogt bites into the piece, with a huge bandwidth of attack: from buttery soft to glassy hard. Gentle and gruff touches coexist peacefully; similarly, there are pompous and wildly colorful moments to be had. You can almost hear an orchestra perform behind it. This is more attention-grabbing (in the best sense) than the articulate sheen of the magnificent-yet-slightly-forgettable Murray Perahia (Sony), yet more coherently done than the wild-and-wilful Olga Kern’s take (Harmonia Mundi). In fact, it might just be the new reference alongside Jonathan Plowright (BIS), Leon Fleisher (Sony), and Garrick Ohlsson (Hyperion).



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Concerto: Buchbinder/Harnoncourt (Telarc/Warner); Freire/Chailly (Decca); Fleisher/Szell (Sony); Gilels/Jochum (DG); Hamelin/Litton (Hyperion), Variations: Fleisher (Sony); Ohlsson (Hyperion); Plowright (BIS)

  • BRAHMS, JOHANNES:
    Piano Concerto No. 2; Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op. 24

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