BRAHMS Late Piano Pieces, Opp 76, 79, 116-119 (Charles Owen)
That Charles Owen has thought deeply about Brahms before committing the late music to disc is obvious from his conversation with Christopher Cook in the booklet. And that care comes through in his music-making too. In Op 117, for instance, he finds an apt simplicity to its opening number, while the second has a nice gentleness. The third is filled with a tangible sadness, and is nicely inward – altogether more urgent than Jonathan Plowright, who produces one of the most touchingly withdrawn readings on record. In Op 116 Owen is particularly telling in the A minor Intermezzo, which has a pleasing intimacy, contrasting with the turbulence of the following number and the sonorously beautiful E major Adagio that forms the set’s centrepiece.
The highlights of Op 118 are to be found in the second piece, which he turns into a true Lied, with a beautifully haloed middle section, and the Ballade, which sets off with a bright-eyed vigour that avoids any hint of trenchancy thanks to his light way with the left-hand chords. In the sixth piece – which, as Owen mentions in the notes, has been identified by Jonathan Keates as starting with the Dies irae chant – the pianist combines myriad colours with a profound unease. But in the fourth piece, I prefer Angelich’s more fluid tempo, while in No 5 it is Plowright, with his steadier speed, who conveys the piece’s processional quality. And of course any new recording of late Brahms is going to come up against Arcadi Volodos, whose combination of velvet tone and an inimitable ear for voicing and singing a melodic line casts a long shadow.
I was less convinced by Op 119, in which Owen sounds a touch tentative. The opening piece is slightly too measured, while the second lacks the vivid characterisation of Lupu and Freire. The third could have been more playful and the light-to-dark final Rhapsody doesn’t find the drama that Lupu and Freire so abundantly demonstrate. On the other hand, much of Op 76 works well, not least the turbulent first piece and the gently playful second, though in the third Plowright dares to dream more, to rapturous effect.
The two Op 79 Rhapsodies are another highlight of this set, though, Owen conveying the requisite sense of power, surmounting their difficulties with ease and making the much-played G minor very much his own.