Brahms wrote his set of four Ballades, Op. 10 (of which Nos 2 and 3 are 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 Schumann's wife, Clara, while coming to terms with his own strong feelings for her. Reflective of the difficult situation, these Ballades display a deep-felt blend of the dramatic and the lyrical.
A few months before he composed the Ballades, during his stay with the Schumanns in October 1853, Brahms completed a new piano sonata with which he had been struggling throughout the spring and summer of that year. Published as his Sonata No. 3, it would remain his single largest keyboard composition. It unites aspects of his two previous sonatas the classical features of No. 1 with the romantic, fantasia-like character of No. 2 and surpasses both of them in virtuosity and structural command.
Brahms's collections of short piano pieces, issued as Op. 116 19, were among his final compositions for piano, and albeit a few of them provide brief glimpses of the old energy and fire, most are reflective, and deeply introspective in character. This was music that Brahms wrote to play for himself, or at the most to a few close friends. In fact, Clara Schumann was the first to see these in their manuscript form.
Much of Brahms's piano music, with its galloping rhythms and urgent melodic figures, can be called "demonic", the word his friend Schumann used to describe the younger composer's Ballade in B minor Op 10 No 3. It starts in satanic vein but opens into tender lyricism, another Brahms trait. In Volume 2 of the piano music, Barry Douglas is particularly successful with this B minor Ballade, and in the Sonata No 3 Op 5 written around the same time. There's a tendency towards heaviness in the Ballade Op 10 No 2, but the Intermezzi (Op 116 Nos 2 and 6, Op 117 no 2) and the Rhapsody Op 119 no 4 are handled with skill, perception and dignity. --Observer, 31/03/13
Douglas superbly draws out the contrasts within each piece, bringing out their individual character. Performance ***** Recording ***** --BBC Music Magazine.Awards issue'13