Marc-André Hamelin is one of the greatest pianists alive today. His technique is superhuman, as is his memory for the reams of notes penned by Alkan and Godowsky. He has recorded many fine discs for Hyperion, which is fortunate as it gives the potential buyer plenty to choose instead of this one.
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 bloated 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 waste of Hamelin’s time, including the entire third movement where the soloist flails about like a wounded animal struggling to escape the 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 a budget Eloquence reissue.