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MusicWeb has suspended the sale of Concert Artists discs until it can be resolved which were actually recorded by Joyce Hatto


Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Complete Works for Piano, Vol. 5

Seven Fantasien, op.116, Three Intermezzi, op.117, Six Klavierstücke, op.118, Four Klavierstücke, op.119
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded at the Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, 17th September 1997 (op.116/1, 3, 6, 7), 5th and 18th May 1998 (op.117/1, 2, op.118/1-3, 5-6, op.119), 3rd February 2004 (op.116/2, 5, op.117/2, op.118/4) (This leaves op.116/4 unaccounted for).

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Having been sent the last three volumes of Joyce Hattoís Brahms cycle I couldnít resist starting from the end, with that extraordinary series of miniatures in which a rejuvenated Brahms somehow summed up and synthesized his lifeís work.

I have encountered Joyce Hattoís op.118 before, as a "filler" to her version of the second Piano Concerto. On that disc there are actually two versions of no.4, the second recorded the following day. Apparently Hatto was not sure which she preferred. She has now resolved the matter by recording a third version! (Lucky the artist whose recording company allows such a thing). I take it the matter at issue was not the basic interpretation, which does not perceptibly change, but of making Brahmsís canons clear (which they sometimes are not in the first version) without being academic about it (as happens at times in the second version). I hope she is now satisfied, for the new version seems to strike a perfect balance between clarity of line and dark passion. In all three versions she makes a diminuendo in the final tragic descent (bb.127-8) instead of holding Brahmsís forte implacably to the bitter end; otherwise itís a marvellous performance.

After hearing Hatto in the complete Mozart Sonatas plus generous helpings of Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt and others, I thought I had her musical personality fairly well mapped out, a warmly musical, unhurried guide to a wide range of repertoire, always acutely aware of the style of the music she is playing; lacking, maybe, the ultimate transport which the greatest artists can give us but also avoiding the pitfalls to which they are sometimes prone.

It was somewhat to my surprise, then, that, after a rather slowly rolled first chord, the first Capriccio of op.116 tears away and is taken throughout as something of an exercise in rubato, impetuous and dashing but slightly unsettling. The last Capriccio of the group is extraordinarily fast, requiring a big adjustment (where none is marked) for the middle section. Again, thrilling but a little disconcerting. The other fast piece of the group, no.3, is impetuous but more controlled.

In contrast with this the A minor Intermezzo, no.2, is wonderfully poised, its sad lullaby allowed to bloom and sing at a tempo which allows for no self-indulgence. Much the same could be said for no.4, while no.5 (an incredibly difficult piece to bring off) is about as perfect as it ever will be in this world, somehow suspended in mid-air, its feet never touching the ground. Whereas no.6 is rather slow and heavy for an "andantino", exaggerated in its rallentandos, and sometimes marks up Brahmsís dynamics. On the other hand, the way the middle section steals in out of nowhere makes up for much Ė a wonderful moment.

It was at this point that I began to study the recording dates given above and realised that nos.2 and 5, together with op.117/2, another extraordinarily beautiful performance, and the op.118/4 I have already discussed, are brand new performances. Hatto was surely in a truly inspired mood that day, achieving, I would say, true greatness as an interpreter.

In September 1997 she seems to have been in a rather wayward mood, daring and exploratory but sometimes going over the top. Whereas the rest, from 1998, are wonderfully satisfying in their perfectly judged tempi, warm but limpid textures and natural phrasing. But they donít quite have that something-or-other which in February 2004 transformed the wonderfully satisfying into the truly great.

I also thought I had Concert Artistís recording techniques fairly well mapped out, warm and pleasing but just slightly opaque and two-dimensional. This remains true of the 1998 offerings; the 1997 ones are surprisingly brilliant, almost to a fault, while the 2004 ones have an added bloom and lifelike quality which bodes well for their future work.

All things considered, this looks like a nearly ideal way to get this essential late Brahms, richly satisfying with some provoking moments and some great ones thrown in. But what, some readers will be saying, about Julius Katchen? For a great many critics and a great many years the Katchen cycle (on Decca) has been looked on as the supreme Brahms on disc. I have to say I canít stand it, for every phrase is super-interpreted, mauled around and pulled out of shape. Just occasionally I have allowed myself to be carried away and have appreciated hearing the music apparently improvised on the spot, before my very ears. In a concert it might have been enthralling, but as a disc to repeat again and again? If you love Katchen I suppose youíre going to find Hatto a bit penny plain, but in that case I venture to suggest you must love Katchen more than you love Brahms.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

The Concert Artist Catalogue is available from MusicWeb

JOYCE HATTO - A Pianist of Extraordinary Personality and Promise - Comment and Interview by Burnett James


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