Pina Napolitano: Brahms the Progressive
For her third Odradek CD release, Pina Napolitano presents an intriguing playlist. She opens with Brahms’s Op 118 Piano Pieces, then follows them with two posthumously published Webern works, the sparse little 12 note Kinderstück and the early, slightly Brahmsian Satz für Klavier. That piece assiduously leads into Berg’s Op 1 Sonata. The posthumous Webern Klavierstück in Minuet Tempo is cut from the same stylistic cloth as the Variations, Op 27, up ahead. Listen to how the Variations’ final bars smoothly slip into those fragile descending arpeggios at the outset of Brahms’s Op 119 group – what a magical transition! And Op 119 never fails as a concert ender, mainly due to the pomp and swagger of No 4’s outer sections.
Napolitano fares strongest in the Webern and Berg works. She revels in the Variations’ distinct dynamic plateaus and makes the composer’s different accentuations clearly distinct. However, a faster tempo for the Sehr schnell movement would have better underlined the music’s lilting humour in the manner of, say, Charles Rosen or Peter Serkin. The pianist shapes the Berg Sonata’s introspective writing into expansive arcs, although stronger left-hand profiling from Hélène Grimaud (DG) and Dénes Varjón (ECM, 6/12) better drive the central climax’s momentum forwards.
Perhaps it’s the slightly dry engineering talking, but much of Napolitano’s Brahms is loose-limbed, wan and, at times, technically uneven. For example, she frequently breaks Op 118 No 2’s long lines as if running out of breath, losing tonal focus at phrase ends. No 3’s flattened-out main section and texturally uniform Trio pale next to Nelson Freire’s vitality and clarity (Decca, A/17), while only No 4’s soft passages generate palpable agitato tension. In Op 119 No 3 Napolitano has trouble maintaining the right hand’s melody/lower voice and shifting left-hand accompaniment in perspective; whenever a left-hand crescendo kicks in, the right hand fades out of focus. By contrast, Emanuel Ax’s interpretation (Sony) is a paradigm of control and grace. It must be said that Napolitano navigated similar challenges more successfully in her solo Schoenberg debut release, which is all the more reason why her Brahms should have been better.