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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
7 Fantasien op.116 [24:22]
3 Intermezzi op.117 [17:01]
6 Klavierstücke op 118 [26:02]
4 Klavierstücke op.119 [17:23]
Nicholas Angelich (piano)
rec. 15-19 August 2006, MC2, Maison de la Culture, Grenoble
VIRGIN CLASSICS 3793022 [24:22 + 60:38]

Nicholas Angelich pulled a fast one on Virgin here. Or rather, a slow one. Let me explain. Brahms’s wonderful farewell to the piano, the twenty pieces making up his opp.116-119, were too long for a single disc in the LP era, but on CD the habit has grown of grouping them all together. A record purporting to be by Joyce Hatto takes a comfortable 72:40. A few minor repeats are omitted, but I doubt if they’d have added more than a couple of minutes to the length. On Brilliant, the slightly more expansive Håkon Austbø nevertheless comes in at 77:09 (see review). I have the famous Julius Katchen performances on LP, but his opp.117-119 take about ten minutes less than Angelich’s so there is plenty of space left for op.116 on CD. I note that DG have issued Wilhelm Kempff’s performances of all twenty pieces on a single disc. So when Virgin booked Angelich to record the series, no doubt they reckoned on getting a CD’s worth. The trouble is, his performances spread to 85 minutes …

Their solution is to issue a “twofer”, in which the short CD dedicated to just op.116 is described as a “bonus disc”. This brings the issue in line with other full price single-disc competitors. The trouble is, from Brilliant you get another “twofer”, with opp.116-119 on one disc and the other containing opp.10, 76 and 79. However, for reasons I will explain later, I personally wouldn’t consider Austbø acceptable at any price.
There’s always the risk, when a disc presents unusual features, of “reviewing” it before hearing it. When requesting these records from our Webmaster I added some such phrase as “with misgivings about the two CDs since one should be enough if the music is played at the proper tempo”. But of course, you can’t really pre-review musical performances in accordance with some mathematical principle. My misgivings were pretty well allayed as soon as the record started playing – I started from op.117, by the way. It’s true that in virtually every case Angelich opts for the slowest possible interpretation of Brahms’s directions. But only the slowest possible one. I found no case where he actually goes below the bottom line. By this I mean that there is no case where his tempo is so slow that his combination of clear phrasing and naturally warm tone cannot hold the listener. The music never falls apart, as it sometimes could in Glenn Gould’s curious takes on a selection of these pieces. He came closest to losing me in the F major Romance (op.118/5), but several of his competitors are rather heavy here too. I heard some appallingly personalized Brahms from Alexander Mogilevsky a while back (EMI CDM 5 67934 2) and was a little afraid I might be getting more of the same. But in terms of phrasing and dynamics these performances are generally faithful to the score and free of exaggerations.
What the cumulative effect of Angelich’s slowish tempi does do is to explore quite specifically – but never sentimentally – the more melancholy, tragic aspects of the slower pieces, and the more stoic aspects of the faster ones. If you turn to “Joyce Hatto” you will find in opp.117-119 a warmer-hearted, more equably tempered Brahms. One can imagine that this is how Clara Schumann might have illustrated these pieces to her pupils. In a centrally satisfying way, the pianist concerned plays these pieces rather as Sir Adrian Boult conducted the symphonies. As basic Brahms, you can hardly go wrong.
I should perhaps say that I began this review some time ago since I was sent a white label advance copy of the records. The Hatto scandal had not yet burst. I was partially tempted to expunge all references to this recording – which you will obviously not be able to obtain in that form – from the present review. On the other hand, when the pianist has been identified the comparisons will remain valid (see review). Note that I say opp.117-119, though. Listening to op.116, I get the idea it’s a composite version. No. 5 receives just about the most exquisitely poised performance you can imagine, sheer perfection. No.6 is out of line with the rest of the disc in being extraordinarily slow – slower than Angelich, though there is a rugged conviction to it. No.7 is tossed off almighty fast, and all three have a different acoustic. Rereading my original review was a little disconcerting. I find that I had duly noted all these signals, yet was unable or unwilling to see where they led. 
To take up the threads from the paragraph above, just as I recognize that there are some listeners for whom Boult’s search for an ideal architectural balance swept some of the composer’s more troubled aspects under the carpet, so there will be listeners who find “Hatto” too comfortable. They might turn to Julius Katchen for a riveting exploration of Brahms’s exposed nerve-ends. When I first heard these performances years ago I resisted them, feeling they were so personalized as to be almost anarchic. In general, strongly personalized performances tend to lose their spell with repeated hearings, but in this case I have shifted  my ground over the years. Every time I hear these performances I marvel anew at the way Katchen seemingly invents the works on the spot, while at the same time displaying such total sympathy with Brahms’s world that what would be aberrations in other hands sound like pure magic.
Other listeners again may well find Angelich’s deeply considered, expansive but not indulgent, performances their own point of entry into the world of late Brahms. At present the “Hatto” only proves that there are some more fine performances out there when we’ve found them. So Angelich can be warmly recommended, especially to those looking for sound a bit more modern than Katchen’s – or Kempff’s – early analogue stereo. I picked up the Austbø, encouraged by the very low price and also thinking, well you never know, it might be …. but it isn’t. Unfortunately he has a habit of playing chords slightly arpeggiated which I found quite intolerable. Its not just a question of left-hand-before-right, as many pianists of the old school used to do, quite often he seems to be playing a banjo not a piano. I didn’t get used to this as the disc went on, indeed, I found myself just waiting for each chord and asking “will he arpeggiate it or will he play it together?”. After a while, since I was not expected to review the disc, I gave up and just sampled here and there. If you don’t think this mannerism will worry you, his tempi and colouring are usually well chosen, though I did note a fast and rather insensitive op.116/6. And I must say I noted a few pieces, such as op.118/4, which perhaps do not lend themselves to his particular mannerism except occasionally, and emerge rather impressively.
I would like to offer now a few fairly random considerations.
I have already mentioned the beautiful “Hatto” performance of op.116/5. In op.118/4 the pianist attains a towering passion on the last page which I find unmatched elsewhere. His/her fierce steadiness in op.118/3 is also exceptional and I would rate him/her supreme in these three pieces.
In op.118/5 Julius Katchen attains a transparency of voicing and a liquid beauty which makes all the others sound a little lumpy. This Romance seems to belong to him alone.
In op.116/7 it is Angelich’s turn to stand above the others - but I haven’t heard Katchen in op.116 - with a massive, black, seething passion. He makes a real epic out of it and I hope to hear him in the op.79 Rhapsodies before too long.
Sviatoslav Richter’s op.119 is as intensely personal as Katchen’s, yet is achieved without the noddings and nudgings which make Katchen an acquired taste. If Katchen is exploratory, I would describe Richter as visionary. As ever, he is an artist of extremes, slower than anybody in nos. 1 and 3, faster than anybody in 2 and 4. The Richter recorded legacy of these three Brahms sets is the usual mix of abundance and frustration. Op.117 seems not to have interested him at all; scattered performances, some more official than others, exist of op.118 nos. 1, 3 and 6, plus all of op.119, usually singly, occasionally as a group. I personally listened to op.119 in an off-air taping of a broadcast recital he gave in Milan in 1965. This does not appear to have been published – maybe one of the several companies interested in Richter should be negotiating with RAI. The recital brings nothing new to the Richter discography – the other items are Beethoven op.31/3, Ravel Miroirs 2 and 3 and the Prokofiev 2nd Sonata – but neither of the other two complete performances of op.119 known to exist, both also from 1965, is available at the moment so it would fill a gap.
Staying with the Russians, Gilels’ op.116 (DGG) is famous, but I know his interpretation only from an off-the-air version of a live performance he gave in Milan at about the same time as the recording. Assuming the interpretation remained broadly similar, he has a noble simplicity in the first four which leaves all the others standing, but I am a little puzzled by his treatment of the remaining three.
The young Hélène Grimaud’s op.118 (Brilliant 92117 – 5 CDs but cheap ones - see review) is not wholly outclassed by all this competition. Basically hers is a homely approach closest to “Hatto” - it isn’t the “Hatto” in case anybody’s wondering - with occasional hints that she has been listening to Katchen. Surprisingly I liked her more than anybody in no.6 – surprisingly because such an intensely introspective piece would logically be furthest from the grasp of a teenager. I hope she will return to this repertoire on disc ere long.
One of my own teachers, Ilonka Deckers-Küszler, trained in an early 20th century Central Europe where Brahms was still a living memory. She would have the Rhapsodie op.119/4 go no faster than Angelich’s broadly majestic account. This may provide some authority for his tempo. On the other hand, she had the op.119/3 Intermezzo skip along in a way none of the pianists discussed so far do. Interestingly, this interpretation is provided by two other pianists whose roots went back at least as far. Moiseiwitsch makes a real charmer of the piece. If he seems too capricious for Brahms, Kempff’s Schubertian lilt is less easily dismissed and for me his is the outstanding interpretation of this particular intermezzo. I am speaking now about a BBC Legends release which includes this and op.119/1. Unfortunately I don’t know his DG recording which, on this showing, ought to have a great deal to offer. In op.119/1 he is alone among the pianists here to believe that, since the time signature is 3/8 not 3/4, Brahms’s Adagio refers to the bar not the single three beats within it. He therefore provides a more free-flowing version, and logically he is right.
The debate on how to perform these inexhaustible pieces could go on for ever. No performance can embrace everything that is in this music but it should be clear by now that anyone seeking a version in fine modern sound will find in Angelich a consistent and powerful interpreter. By emphasizing the bleak, tragic aspects of the music he causes it to look forward towards Mahler rather backwards towards Schubert. A distinctive achievement.
Christopher Howell




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