BRAHMS Piano Pieces. Waltzes
Jonathan Plowright’s complete Brahms piano music for BIS, inaugurated in 2013, has now reached Vol 3, with all its intelligence, subtlety and power in full blossom. Other pianists – Leon McCawley, Stephen Hough and Andreas Haefliger among them – have hinted at a new direction, or perhaps a restoration, in Brahms interpretation. Plowright, in his original, thoughtful way, leads the pack. Thick, muddy textures awash in pedal (sounds patently unachievable on the latest pianos Brahms knew) and leaden tempi so characteristic of the mid-20th-century approach to this music are rapidly and happily becoming things of the past.
One thing that makes Plowright’s interpretations so compelling is that they sound totally fresh, as though a fully formed, cultured musician, unencumbered by conventional approaches or received wisdom, took up these scores for the first time in maturity. The results are often unexpected, yet always apt and never less than convincing.
The B minor Capriccio (Op 76 No 2) is unrushed, diffident, as though confiding its drolleries in a whisper. The robust C sharp minor Capriccio (No 5), with its swaggering cross-rhythms and passionate assertions, creates a miniature epic. It’s difficult to think of another performance that delineates the mercurial mood-swings of the C major Capriccio (No 8) with greater finesse and insight.
Delicacy and heartfelt sentiment characterise the gracious A major Intermezzo (Op 118 No 2), illustrating Plowright’s gift for evoking sentiment without sentimentality. The story told in the G minor Ballade (No 3) is filled with lean, mean, no-nonsense resolve, while the much-belaboured E flat minor Intermezzo (No 6) emerges here unequivocally powerful, its eloquence partly due to secco staccatos and crystalline textures.
The Waltzes, Op 39, for all their unfettered ebullience, present the same wealth of detail that characterises Opp 76 and 118. The Variations on a Hungarian Melody provide a charming overture to the programme. I have a feeling this is going to be the benchmark Brahms survey for some time to come.