BRAHMS Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op 24
For many pianists there is a long-standing ambition to record a particular composer. For Mitsuko Uchida it was the complete Mozart piano concertos; for Jonathan Plowright it is the complete piano music of Brahms, and I very much hope that his wonderful new disc of the Third Sonata and the Handel Variations is the launch of a cycle.
Plowright recorded the F minor Sonata some years ago for the short-lived Kingdom label (10/90) but here on BIS he far excels that fine earlier account. His warmth and sincerity combine with a superbly assured and powerful technique to create one of the finest performances on record (even when compared with the likes of Curzon and Lupu) and in both the slow movements (where in the first ‘two hearts unite in love, / And embrace in rapture’) he plays with an unforgettable sense of the ineffable, his slow tempi in music marked andante sustained with rare beauty and concentration. Elsewhere, in the finale’s closing pages (which supremely contradict Hugo Wolf’s odd assertion, ‘Brahms cannot exult’) and in the Scherzo – a true dance of the gods – his performance is eloquent and direct, quite without impediment or undue idiosyncrasy yet musical to the core.
His Handel Variations, too, are subtly and economically inflected, never searching for easy glamour or effect, with a brisk hand taken to the music-box chimes of Var 22, a formidable command in Vars 4 and 14 and a thoughtful, communing way with Var 5. One could hardly wish for more and I can scarcely wait for further volumes from this pianist, adding that both the piano concertos positively cry out for his attention.