Brahms's piano sonatas
Piano Sonatas Nos 1-3
Coupled with Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op 35. Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op 24. Four Ballades, Op 10. Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op 9. Variations on an Original Theme, Op 21 No 1. Variations on a Hungarian Song, Op 21 No 2. Waltzes, Op 39. Two Rhapsodies, Op 79. Scherzo in E flat minor, Op 4. Piano Pieces – Op 76; Op 116; Op 117; Op 118; Op 119. Hungarian Dances (with Jean-Pierre Marty, pf)
Julius Katchen (pf)
Decca London 455 247-2LC6 (388‘ · ADD) Recorded 1962-66. Buy from Amazon
The American pianist Julius Katchen made his name in the early 1950s and died in 1969, but although he’s generally thought of as a distinguished figure from the last generation, it’s salutary to realise that his career ended when he was only 42. Even so, his legacy of recordings reminds us of his gifts and the breadth of his repertory, and the present Brahms cycle has distinction. It begins with an account of the Paganini Variations that gives ample proof of his assured technique: the playing tells us at once that the challenging variations in sixths (Nos 1 and 2 in Book 1) held no terrors for him, and the athleticism here is matched by a fluency in the leggiero writing of the variation that follows. In this work, though, you’re generally made more aware of a keyboard virtuoso than a poet; there are other performances which balance these two qualities more finely. Tempi tend to rapidity, too, and the piano sound tends to have a hardish brilliance. However, he does bring a gentler quality to the three other sets of variations here, not least in his freer use of rubato and tonal nuance, as witness (say) the serene Variations Nos 11-12 in the big Handel set, where the recording from three years earlier is easier on the ear. Here, as elsewhere, there’s a little tape hiss, but not enough to distract.
Poetry is to be found in good measure in Katchen’s playing of the Four Ballades, Op 10. These pieces belie the composer’s youth in their deep introspection, though the pianist takes a brisk view of the Andante con moto tempo in No 4. The 16 Waltzes of Op 39 are attractive too in their crispness and charm, and the early Scherzo in E flat minor has the right dour vigour. The three sonatas are also impressive in their strong, energetic interpretative grasp, though you could wish that the first-movement repeat of No 1 had been observed. Also, slow movements could have a still more inward quality to convey that brooding self-communion which is so characteristic of this composer – though that of Sonata No 3 in F minor is pretty near it. That F minor Sonata is spacious and thoughtful as well as leonine, and this is a noble performance, well recorded in 1966.
The shorter pieces are finely done also. Katchen is in his element in the Two Rhapsodies of Op 79, balancing the stormy and lyrical qualities to perfection. The Fantasias, Op 116, aren’t so well recorded (the sound is a bit muffled). However, the playing is masterly, with tragedy, twilight mystery and storm and stress fully playing their part, and giving a golden glow to such pieces as the lovely E major Intermezzo which is No 6 of the set and the A major Intermezzo, Op 118 No 2. Possibly more sensuous gypsy charm could be found in, say, the B minor Capriccio of Op 76 but it’s very attractive playing, and the playful C major Intermezzo in Op 119 is delightful, as is the tender lullaby that begins Op 117.
Only the first 10 of the 21 Hungarian Dances exist in the composer’s own (very difficult) version for piano solo, and in the others, written for piano duet, Katchen is joined by Jean-Pierre Marty; there’s plenty of fire here and much to enjoy. Altogether, this Brahms set is a fine memorial to Katchen and a worthy issue.
Piano Sonata No 2
Coupled with Three Pieces, Op 117. Eight Pieces, Op 76
Libor Novacek (pf)
Landor LAN285 (76’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Libor Novacek shows himself deeply sensitive to the interior light burning beneath the surface of Brahms’s often dark-hued later masterpieces. What unfaltering poise and tonal translucence he achieves throughout Opp 76 and 117. Less ebullient than, say, Rubinstein or Perahia in the second Capriccio from Op 76, his playing is so finely ‘worked’ and controlled that even here he captures a reflection and nostalgia at the heart of such music. His poetic refinement in No 6 is exquisite and if Novacek dims the radiance of No 8, keeping its exultance on a tight rein, he remains musicianly to his fingertips. Here once more he locates an underlying poetry denied to less subtle or less engaging pianists. A master of inwardness, he also sets the storm clouds scudding menacingly across No 6 and shows that he’s as swashbuckling as the best of them in the early F sharp minor Sonata, resolving every thorny and perverse difficulty with ease and lucidity. The Landor sound (Potton Hall in Suffolk) is of demonstration quality.
Piano Sonata No 3
Coupled with Hungarian Dances Nos 1, 2, 3, 6 & 7. Eight Pieces, Op 76 – No 2, Capriccio in B minor; No 7, Intermezzo in A minor
Evgeny Kissin (pf)
RCA Red Seal 82876 52737-2 (56‘ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Kissin opens the F minor Sonata with an imperious thrust, and in the octave outburst at 4'46" again proves himself a fearless virtuoso; few pianists of any generation would even consider such a whirlwind tempo. For some, his rubato, heated and intense, will seem overbearing, yet he finds the still centre at the heart of the Andante. He thunders to the heavens the final climax (molto appassionato) and launches the Scherzo as though with a rush of blood to the head. He may be a less subtle poet of the keyboard in this sonata than, say, Radu Lupu (Decca), but his searing projection carries its own rewards, and every bar of Brahms’s early and rhetorical masterpiece is marked by his overwhelming technique and magisterial temperament.
In Op 76 No 2 you’d hardly mistake the pressure he exerts for Rubinstein’s or Perahia’s patrician grace, but it says much for his conviction that in No 7 he can so audaciously replace the composer’s semplice direction with his own more elaborate notion of style. But it’s in five of the Hungarian Dances that his extrovert nature finds its truest outlet: in No 6 his performance is of an astounding verve and resilience. Here’s virtuosity in the grandest of grand manners, and RCA’s sound, for once, is as red-blooded as the playing.
Piano Sonata No 3
Coupled with 16 Waltzes, Op 39
Antti Siirala (pf)
Ondine ODE1044-2 (62‘ · DDD) Buy from Amazon
Antti Siirala has been a serial entrant of piano competitions. He wins most of them, including the Beethoven, London, Dublin and Leeds (2003) events, but he is a great deal more than a jury-pleaser. This is a strikingly good disc, notable both for the full-bodied, golden tone of the piano (superbly recorded) and his ability to hold together both long movements and large structures with playing of refined musicality. After the first two pages of the F minor Sonata other mighty performances spring to mind – Katchen, Solomon, of course, Grainger and Bauer from an even earlier era. After the leonine first movement comes the long nocturnal narrative of the second. To hear Siirala at his most expressive, try the final section (andante molto) from 9'02", sensitive to every nuance, deeply felt and aching with regret. He characterises the rumbustious Scherzo and its chorale-like Trio equally well, and builds to the impassioned climax of the finale with abandon.
Siirala brings colour and imagination to the Op 39 Waltzes. He makes subtle use of all the repeats, and the sighing falls of No 12 are beautifully done, though it’s debatable whether almost all the left hand of the famous A flat waltz (No 15) should be played staccato (only the first four bars and six towards the end are so marked). It’s a detail, to be sure, an aspect of the music to which Siirala, otherwise, pays admirable attention.
Piano Sonata No 3
Coupled with Liszt: La leggierezza, S144 No 2. Années de pèlerinage, première année, S160, ‘Suisse’ – Au bord d’une sourcea. Hungarian Rhapsody No 15 in A minor, S244 Schumann Carnaval, Op 9
Testament mono SBT1084 (79‘ · ADD). Recorded 1930-52
Solomon’s 1952 recordings of Schumann’s Carnaval and the Brahms Sonata in F minor are essential for the desert island, so this well-produced compilation, generously filled out with Liszt, recommends itself. If you’ve heard tell of Solomon’s reputation but don’t know his work, or perhaps know only his Beethoven, snap it up. The sound has come up astonishingly well, also in the Liszt pieces which were made in 1930 and 1932. Solomon’s performance of ‘Au bord d’une source’ is a match for Liszt’s poetic inspiration, as few recordings of it are. Technical address and refinement on this level constitute a small miracle.