Brahms Handel Variations

A belated return to Brahms has been well worth the wait

Author: 
Bryce Morrison

BRAHMS Handel Variations

  • (25) Variations and Fugue on a Theme by G.F. Handel
  • (2) Rhapsodies, No. 1 in B minor
  • (2) Rhapsodies, No. 2 in G minor
  • (6) Pieces, No. 1, Intermezzo in A minor
  • (6) Pieces, No. 2, Intermezzo in A
  • (6) Pieces, No. 3, Ballade in G minor
  • (6) Pieces, No. 4, Intermezzo in F minor
  • (6) Pieces, No. 5, Romance in F
  • (6) Pieces, No. 6, Intermezzo in E flat minor
  • (4) Pieces, No. 1, Intermezzo in B minor
  • (4) Pieces, No. 2, Intermezzo in E minor
  • (4) Pieces, No. 3, Intermezzo in C
  • (4) Pieces, No. 4, Rhapsody in E flat

It may be 20 years since Murray Perahia’s last Brahms release but the wait has been gloriously worthwhile. For here, once more, is a pianist who achieves the highest musical quality with the most economical means. Time and again Brahms’s potential for strenuousness and opacity is clarified with a superfine musical intelligence and technique. The opening Aria from the Handel Variations is unusually thoughtful and considered, and in the sciolto of Var 14 he conveys all of Brahms’s riotous brilliance while characteristically remaining in superb control. Hear his hushed withdrawal at the start of Var 22, as if the music’s magical chime was heard from a great distance; and, per contra, I doubt whether the concluding and exultant fugue has often been given with a more formidably yet lightly worn articulacy in its entire history. This is a performance for those poor souls who, amazingly, take a dim view of Brahms’s keyboard variations.
Translucent voicing and texture characterise Perahia’s way with the Op 79 Rhapsodies and most of all the Opp 118 and 119 Intermezzos. Perahia achieves a burning clarity (even when the music is marked piano and sotto voce) at the start of Op 118’s concluding Intermezzo, bringing a wealth of concentrated detail and an impeccable line and impetus to this heart-stopping epic in miniature (if the paradox be allowed), a mirror of the inner desolation that afflicted Brahms both early and late in his life. Try Op 119 No 1 for a poetic intensity and subtlety uniquely Perahia’s and you may well wonder when you last heard a pianist with a more patrician disregard for all forms of bloated excess or exaggeration.
There are, of course, other approaches to these works – Katchen’s stunning opulence and theatricality in the Handel Variations (Decca, 2/91), Lupu’s crepuscular magic in the late Intermezzos (Decca, 8/87) or Argerich’s early and inflammatory genius in the Rhapsodies (DG, 2/93, 6/95) – yet I doubt whether a pianist more finely attuned to every harmonic and rhythmic subtlety has existed since Lipatti. This disc, finely recorded, forms a vital part of Perahia’s crowning return after several years of debilitating illness.

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