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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Scherzo in E flat minor Op. 4 (1851)
Klavierstücke Op. 76 (1878)
Variations on a Theme by Paganini Op. 35 (1866)
Ballades Op. 10 (1854)
No. 1 in D minor
No. 2 in D major
No. 3 in B minor
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Rec. Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge 1994 and 2002 (Paganini Variations)
The Works for Piano Volume 4


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This is a fine ranging volume from Joyce Hatto, which shows her, once more, as a Brahmsian of real distinction. Ranging from the early Op 4 Scherzo to the eight Klavierstücke Op 76 we also have three of the Ballades and a titanic Paganini Variations. The Scherzo was written when Brahms was eighteen and it’s instructive to compare and contrast Hatto’s performance with that another powerful Brahms player, Krystian Zimerman – not least because I generally tend to measure her for these purposes against those titans from her own past, men like Backhaus and Rubinstein and Cortot. We find that she is punchy and youthfully insistent, more so than he, whereas Zimerman favours greater agogic indulgence and more stentorian chording. I tend to favour her youthful, fresh-cheeked high spirits over the rather bearded Brahms cultivated by Zimerman.

The Klavierstücke again reveal important differences, if one takes Hatto’s performance and analyses it against Tomás Vásáry’s. Hatto takes the F sharp minor Capriccio in a very linear fashion – direct, left hand melody subsumed directionally, whereas Vásáry is significantly slower, his bass chording more vertical, his approach more "pregnant" with meaning. His rubati carve a sense of eruptive ascent though I think one could convincingly argue that Hatto captures rather better the sense of unease and withholding – the complex business of implying without stating. In the B minor Capriccio Hatto shines with her sense of incision and also puckish wit. She never indulges rubati. There are always differences of emphases in these pieces; whereas she stresses the rhythmic games of the Intermezzo in A flat and takes a relaxed tempo, stressing the charming gravity of it as she expands tonally with great romantic generosity, Vásáry prefers to explore the sense of animated vigour. The Intermezzo in A major is one that I would characterise as embodying Hatto’s pianistic curriculum vitae. It is affectionate yet tensile, with rubati under perfect control, without indulgence or gallery playing. She is slower than Vásáry, and demonstrates a lighter and more mobile left hand – her Brahms is not stolid or bloated – and she prefers transparency of texture and clarity of finger work to fudging. She is certainly not one to go down the portentous Brahmsian route in the A minor Intermezzo. Vásáry – and many others – tends to italicise this one; Hatto lets her fingers do the work, and the musical talking.

I enjoyed the Ballades. In the D minor Hatto once more takes a more direct line than Zimerman, who is more obviously introspective than she but in the D major her structural acuteness pays off. If you play the opening section too slowly you need to be very careful not to splinter this piece in two, a failing Zimerman doesn’t entirely escape. Hatto meanwhile takes a brisker tempo and the second, eruptive section is far more integrated in her hands. It doesn’t sound as inflammatory but it makes far more narrative sense. There are big divergences in the remarkable B minor Ballade. Zimerman is quite skittish with big internal contrasts of mood, tone and tempo and a slower tempo to accommodate them all. Hatto elicits some spectral intimacies here and can be square-jawed (in the best sense) and commandingly cogent.

And we have yet to reach the Paganini Variations, a cripplingly difficult work. Hatto’s technique is amazingly powerful here in a work that is more practised in private than performed in public (and no wonder). What is so notable about her performance is the fusion of the poetic and the technical. So for example in the trill study (Book I No. 4) she manages to convey the melodic ebb and flow even when dealing with the right hand little finger trills. This is amplified by the sense of espressivo she cultivates in No. 5 – even in the midst of the nasty cross rhythms and polyphony. If a pianist can’t convey a musical line here he is lost. Hatto is triumphant. She copes with the syncopated octaves of No 6 with impassive control and in the musical box variation (Book 1 No. 11) she is appositely tender and tonally elfin. And her right hand glissandi in No. 13 are marvellously effective. One needs an exceptional technique to cope with the hellish double notes of Book II No. 1 – Brahms’ little joke if one has survived the assault course of Book I. There are no tricks here or short cuts in Hatto’s performance, nor can one doubt her poetry in the espressivo Book II No. 2 or the gentle waltz rhythm of No. 4. As Hatto has shown from her Chopin Mazurka discs she knows how to dance. The driving ascending arpeggios of No. 10 are daringly despatched and yet, once again, the equilibrium between finger sinew and emotive expression is encapsulated in the Variations Nos. 11 and 12 where we move immediately from octave/single note complexity of No. 11 to the limpid delicacy of No. 12. All in all this is a distinct achievement, conveyed with the minimum of ostentation, as indeed is the whole disc.

Jonathan Woolf


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