Brahms: Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol 1 - Plowright

Brahms: Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol 1 - Plowright


Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental

BRAHMS, Johannes (1833–97)
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5 (1853)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op. 24 (1861)

Jonathan Plowright
Grand Piano: Steinway D

British pianist Jonathan Plowright makes his début recording on BIS. Hailed by Gramophone as ‘one of the finest living pianists’, Plowright is recognised worldwide as a truly exceptional artist.

Brahms’s Piano Sonata No. 3 is hero¬ic in scale, unconventional in layout and exudes high quality making it one of the most impressive sonatas since those of Beethoven and Schubert.

Brahms never wrote another piano sonata after completing No. 3 but instead concentrated on a series of large-scale sets of variations, among which the Handel Variations must be considered his crowning achievement. Completed in September 1861 the work shows Brahms at the height of his powers.

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PCM recording

Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - February 16, 2013

There are not many pianists who would care to begin recording a new cycle of piano works by Brahms with the composer's two finest and most challenging pieces. Jonathon Plowright, a new young, roundly fêted and self-confident virtuoso, thinks this is the best way to start his journey through the Brahmsian piano-scape. And with this SA-CD disc he has certainly put down his marker.

The most frequent forms of Brahms' piano music are hallmarks of Classical procedure: sonatas and variations, of which this disc is an example. The third of Brahms' piano sonatas, Op. 5, was finished in 1835 and was his last in the genre; Brahms clearly thought that he had said everything he needed to. He was inspired (and awed, like many other composers), by the 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven, and his three sonatas all bow to the classical form and content laid down by Beethoven. But by natural evolutionary processes, of course, Brahms imposed his own personality and values, developing what we may call advanced sonata form. We can easily see this in Op. 5; while the first movement has a standard 3-part classical sonata structure and has a familiar slow movement, scherzo and finale, Op. 5 has a fifth movement. There is also evidence of Liszt in the third sonata. Liszt's penchant for cultivating the masses, as Brahms darkly observed it, was anathema to his own musical ideals. On the other hand, some of Liszt's innovations, such as cyclical works in which one or more mottoes or themes occur in each movement of a sonata or symphony, appealed to Brahms, and he went about quietly implementing this technique in Op. 5.

Lasting over forty minutes, Brahms' Third Sonata is a mighty marriage of Classical and Romantic elements. It demands formidable technical skills, while at the same time requiring interpretative powers of considerable depth. Recordings by such masters as the reliable Julius Katchen, the impetuous Evgeny Kissin and the poetic Radu Lupu helped me try to define Jonathon Plowright's interpretation. First, he has the technicalities superbly under control; all one has to do is admire the cascades of notes or deft machine-gun double octaves. Plowright is meticulous in following the score, particularly in dynamics (bearing in mind that in 1835 the modern grand piano had yet to emerge). As far as tempi go, he is more expansive than the urgent Kissin in the outer movements, which notably aids the clarity of his playing: his opening to the first movement is duly majestic as demanded, rather than hurling chords at the sky as Kissin does.

Plowright takes the Andante espressivo (second movement) more slowly than most, but with intense concentration. His opening falling thirds, a fingerprint of Brahms, speak of calm and peace, while the central interlude is like a tender lullaby, blossoming into an ecstatic climax. Returning to the falling thirds motto, he plays with heart-melting simplicity and seeming timeless expression, with an exquisite leave-taking coda at the same slow pace. Plowright's scherzo has swagger and a Schumannesque uplift, with a Brahmsian bluster in the deep bass; it is good that he finds many examples of dry or ironic humour from the composer, secreted away in all the sonata's movements.

The fourth movement, another slow one and an 'Intermezzo' with the designation of "Ruckblick" (looking backwards) is one of Brahms' most unusual inventions. Only 52 bars long, it is an agonised funeral march making references to the one in Beethoven's Fifth symphony, and Plowright respectfully plumbs its drama, particularly relishing a series of crunching discords which must have dismayed audiences at the time. The Finale, positing the elements of a playful scherzo, has virtuosic cascades of notes and is one of the more technical movements. Its perky theme tries many times, but never seems to get going properly, and Plowright neatly distills the teasing humour of this movement.

Like Beethoven, Brahms had a special talent for making variation sets from simple tunes. Handel's Air from his B flat Harpsichord Suite gave him the perfect inspiration for what became one of the summits of his keyboard output. Completed in Hamburg, 1862, Brahms, intellectual scholar of Baroque and early music, was inspired to create a brilliant set of 25 variations and a final fugue which even Wagner had to admire. Plowright brings a wonderful range of pianistic colours, poetry, characterisations and drama to this summit of Brahmsian invention. Listen to Var X, a will-o'-the-wisp which foretells of Ravel's Ondine; Var XIV which is a prelude to the Hungarian dances, and XXII, a Musette seemingly played on a music-box. One never knows what is coming next, from artful delicacy to fully-powered sonorous octave chords, scintillating showers of notes to tongue-in-cheek mimicry of Baroque manners. An exceptional performance.

Having started so convincingly at the summit of Brahms' piano pieces, the prospect of a complete series in SA-CD from Jonathan Plowright is most appetizing, garnished as here with a first-class BIS piano recording. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2013 John Miller and


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