BRAHMS The Complete Solo Piano Music Vol 5
The qualities that have distinguished Jonathan Plowright’s Brahms series for BIS since its beginning in 2013 – keen intelligence, thoughtful interpretations of striking originality and pianistic finesse – are abundantly evident in the most recent release, Vol 5. Those who have been following this journey of discovery will recognise the characteristically judicious pedalling, lean lines, structural cohesion and the antithesis of ‘leaden Brahms’ tempos. Those new to the series will no doubt be impressed at the insightful wisdom and love brought to bear on pieces that, in their various ways, are among the more challenging of Brahms’s solo piano music.
Any pianist tackling the C major Sonata has his/her work cut out. Characteristic of the work of a very young composer, it is over-long and over-written. One common solution is to plunge in with daredevil tempos, hoping to highlight the architecture and breadth of the future symphonist. Plowright, on the other hand, takes the work at face value, unapologetically lingering over its undeniable beauties. He creates a palpable atmosphere in the folk-inspired slow movement and dazzles in the scampering Scherzo. The finale rollicks with youthful ebullience, its sound technical assurance in the most perilous passages adding a layer of exhilaration. Among recent recordings, Alexander Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi, 5/11) poses alternative solutions using a historical instrument, though not, in my opinion, surpassing Plowright’s.
The seven Capriccios and Intermezzos of the introverted Op 116 usher in a self-contained world of varied moods. Bracketed by the two D minor Capriccios, the first with its hammered cross-rhythms and the last with its fierce vehemence, they explore confiding sadness (No 2), irascibility (No 3), morning-fresh languor (No 4) and scarcely concealed panic (No 5) with unabashedly natural empathy.
It is the Variations on the first of Schumann’s Bunte Blätter, however, that I find most admirable. Plowright captures all the Schumannesque mercurial shifts of mood as channelled through Brahms with the candid precision of an expert photographer. In depth of sentiment and subtlety of expression, I’m not sure I’ve heard a better performance. Kudos to the BIS engineers for their adept capture of this compelling music-making.