This is Volume 1 in a new series devoted to the Works for Solo Piano by Johannes Brahms, starting with a selection of highly personal collections of Capriccios, Intermezzi, Ballades, a Romance, and Rhapsodies. The series also marks the first major project of the internationally acclaimed pianist Barry Douglas as an exclusive Chandos artist. Since winning the Gold Medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow, Douglas has established a major international career, and his reputation as a pianist and conductor continues to grow. Douglas was the soloist in the 2011 recording of Nino Rotas Concerto soirée (CHAN 10669), of which International Piano said: For pianophiles, the headline message is undoubtedly Barrys back. A complete Brahms series beckons, for which this definitely whets the appetite. Brahms wrote his set of four Ballades, Op. 10 (of which No. 4 is included on this disc) at the age of twenty-one, and at a time of much personal upheaval. His friend and patron Schumann had attempted suicide and been confined to a sanatorium near Bonn, and Brahms had been thrust into the role of protector and comforter of Schumanns wife, Clara, while coming to terms with his own strong feelings for her. Reflective of the difficult situation, this work displays a deep-felt blend of the dramatic and the lyrical. Perhaps the climax of Brahms activities as a composer came with the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24. This was Brahmss first major compositional statement following his 1860 Manifesto against the New German School. The choice of a baroque theme, the strictness of the variations, the richness and scope of the piano technique, and the display of contrapuntal method in the Fugue, all combine to present Brahms in the role of Preserver of Tradition. Even Wagner saw the importance of the work, commenting grandly that it showed what could still be done with the old forms by someone who knew how to use them. The predominant mood of the three Intermezzos on this disc is reflective and deeply introspective, which is in strong contrast to Brahmss Capriccios, which are passionate, almost volatile, in character. The Romance, Op. 118 No. 5 completes the disc. This is a tuneful piece, which displays the lilt almost of a folksong.
The first thing to say about the first instalment in Barry Douglas’ new Brahms series for Chandos is that the programming alone makes it one the most engaging Complete Works piano discs you could hope to own. Douglas, rather than grouping pieces in their entire published sets as is the recording norm, has instead chosen to mix things up. So, an intermezzo from one book might sit next to a capriccio from another. Where pieces from the same set do make it onto this disc, such as the two Opus 79 Rhapsodies, they're split apart. The result is a massively engaging running order.
Topped and tailed with concert platform panache by the Rhapsody Op.79 No.1 and the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel (Op.24), the middle meat of the disc contains more reflective representations ranging from Opus 10, composed as a 21-year-old, through to three of the mature sets, Opuses 116, 117, 118, published near the end of his life. The ear is naturally led to compare and contrast the enormous breath of musical thought and style that spans Brahms' career.
Getting down to the playing itself, these are interpretations that feel as if they get right to the heart of Brahms the man and the musician with the impression they weave of Romantic expression melded with deference to classical form and sensibilities. From the introspection of Intermezzo Op.118 No.2 with its gorgeous washes of sound, to the crisp, virtuosic homage to past masters that is the ‘Handel Variations’, his articulation is deft and colourful, and his overall style expansive. The multifarious strands of Brahms' dense, complex and contrapuntal writing are beautifully balanced, with a sure structural grasp that carries the ear and sustains the musical argument equally convincingly across individual phrases and long, multi-sectioned pieces.
What a triumph of Brahmsian thought. Volume Two is already on this reviewer's wish list.
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