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Brahms: Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol 2 - Plowright

Brahms: Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol 2 - Plowright

BIS  BIS-2117 SACD

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental


BRAHMS, Johannes (1833–97): Piano Sonata No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 2 (1853); Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21 No. 1 (1855–57?); Three Intermezzi, Op. 117 (1892); Scherzo in E flat minor, Op. 4 (1851)

Jonathan Plowright, piano

Instrumentarium: Grand Piano: Steinway D


On a first disc dedicated to Johannes Brahms’s solo piano music (released in December 2012), Jonathan Plowright performed two monumental works: the Handel Variations and Piano Sonata No.3. In terms of duration, the Second Piano Sonata which opens the current disc is scarcely less impressive, with a playing time of almost 30 minutes. It is the work of a young man eager to make his mark both as pianist and composer: virtuosic, tempestuous and often not especially Brahmsian. But there are signs of what was to come, for instance in the slow second movement; inspired by the text of a medieval troubadour song and cast in Brahm’s much-loved variation form, it testifies to his enduring interest in the musical traditions of the past.

Of the remaining works on the disc, the Scherzo was actually composed before the Sonata, in 1851, while the Op.21 Variations probably saw the light of day not much later, possibly around 1855. The Variations seems in part to have been an exercise which Brahms set himself in order to perfect his command of the form, but is at the same time a searching creation of considerable poetry.

The introspective quality in Op.21 is one that returns in Brahms’s last works for the piano, including the Three Intermezzi, published in 1892, and probably composed not long before that date. At once one of the darkest and most beautiful of Brahms’s late piano works, the set seems to have had an especially personal signi­fi­cance for him, and he once referred to it as ‘The lullaby of all my griefs’.

Recommending the previous instalment, a critic on the German public radio broadcaster Radio Bremen described the combination of Jonathan Plowright and Johannes Brahms as ‘a British-German dream team’. His counterpart in BBC Music Magazine found ‘tremendous warmth, plus an intimate atmosphere’ in the performances, qualities that certainly come to the fore on this second disc in the series.

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Review by John Miller - October 1, 2014

The second volume of Jonathon Plowright's traversal of Brahms' piano music takes us from his earliest existing original piece, the Scherzo in E flat minor Op. 4 (1851), to the Three Intermezzi, Op. 117 (1892) of his so called "Autumnal" late stage. Completing his artfully arranged programme, Plowright adds the F sharp minor Sonata Op. 2 from 1852 (despite its catalogue number, the earliest complete sonata) and a set of 11 Variations on an Original Theme in D Op. 21 no. 1 (1856).

Plowright sets down his own dramatic instincts about the F sharp minor sonata in its very first bars. Whereas great masters such as Richter, Katchen and Arrau give the first movement a grandiose energy with plenty of pedal, Plowright follows Brahms' score to the letter. Brahms' opening double octaves are each marked with staccatissimo wedge symbols and played thus, and one note in the third bar as staccato is also correctly distinguished. Plowright also uses only the minimum of pedal.This indicates that Brahms, like his revered Beethoven before him, provided detailed instructions about the performer's articulation and expected players to obey them to the letter. Beethoven, in fact, devised his own system for truncating sound for some notes, and as well as the dot and wedge marks, he invented a system of short lines for further details, which are now recognised and inserted into recent editions of the Beethoven Symphonies and concertos and observed by some conductors.

Plowright's rendering of the rolled chords beginning each bar, voiced to emphasise his startling rhythmic attack, brings out the bright upper note, whereas most other performers voice the chords evenly or emphasise the lower notes in a grandiose fashion. The result of all this is that his opening is energeticaly pugnacious, not grand, until the mood relaxes into the more lyrical second subject. Interestingly, Plowright's time of 5:34 for the first movement is very close to Katchen's 5:29, while Richter takes 6:12 and Arrau 6:19. In the Andante con espessivo, Plowright is about a minute or more slower than Richter, Arrau or Katchen, giving accent to the expressive side of the movement in contrast to his intense first movement. Plowright's searching and refining of the whole score brings his detailed study to bear on his phenomenal technique and depth of interpretation. It also brings out the work's Beethoven and Lisztian influences more than usual, producing a powerful reappraisal of the Sonata Op. 2, considered by some critics as the weakest of the Piano Sonatas.

Variations on an Original Theme Op.21 no. 1 is rather neglected on disc and in recitals. Late in 1856, after discussing their respective variation styles in correspondence with violinist Joseph Joachim, Brahms carried out his vow to vary a theme that arose from the nature of the theme itself. The theme he wrote himself is long, poetic and contemplative, with an extended tonic pedal for the first 6 and last 5 measures. Nearly all of the variations in the major occur in pairs, in which the second intensifies some aspect of the first, and the minor variations provide the last element before the finale, which itself is an extended variation-as-coda. Plowright's calm poetry and subtle shaping of each variation is most attractive, inviting an immediate repeat hearing.

As a resounding contrast to the relative peace of the Variations of an Original Theme, nothing could be better than the Scherzo Op. 4, in the key of E flat major, a tricky one for pianists. Brahms' instruction is "Rasch und feurig", which onomatopoeics hardly require translation. Surely influenced by the four scherzos of Chopin (although Brahms denied that he had seen these works before writing his own), the Scherzo has many of the elements of mature Brahms. Plowright simply has fun with this piece; its general impishness and the quirkiness of its trios, its forceful rhythmic language, all turn their backs on superficial, salon-style pianism.

After the Scherzo's exhausting antics, Plowright takes his leave with a group of lullabies in Three Intermezzi Op. 117. Brahms privately called these as "cradle-songs of my sorrows", inscribing the first in the set "Sleep softly, my child, sleep softly and well; It grieves me so much to see you sleep" (Scottish, from Herder's Folk Songs). Plowwright's delicate, soft and sensitive keyboard touch here is achingly beautiful in its understated lyricism, yet profoundly disquieting in the dark currents which flow below the surfaces of these short pieces - for example, in the final one, the major mode central section is most disturbing as it sends unexpected notes floating into the upper register, exquisitely done.

At the time of writing, there is a direct rival to the BIS Plowright cycle of Brahms' piano works. Barry Douglas' cycle for Chandos has reached its third volume, all RBCD with 96/24 downloads. The two young tyros have much in common, and if you are collecting one or the other disc by disc rather than waiting for the full set, some auditioning of each might be in order. With regard to the main work on Plowright's disc, the Sonata no. 2, Douglas takes nearly the same time as Richter for the first movement, and is less original in its early Romantic approach than Plowright's. His programmes are also quite controversial, as he ascribes to the idea that Brahms did not necessarily intend all his groups of short pieces (e.g. Op. 117, 118, 119 etc.) to remain in the published order, and his programmed groups contain pieces form what appears to many as a random picking. Sonically, in the hires download, the fine Chandos capture of a Steinway D is closer and has a hall more resonant at low frequencies than the BIS recording and so has a wider range of overtones, particularly in the deep bass. Nonetheless, the BIS recording in the famous Potton Hall in Suffolk, a chamber music recording Mecca, has an attractive halo of ambience, without disturbing the fine detail of Plowright's articulation.

If you are prepared for these pieces to sound somewhat different to classic ones from the great masters, then listen to what Plowright has to play. Highly recommended for programme, interpretations and recording.

Copyright © 2014 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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