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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Complete Works for Piano Vol. 4

Scherzo in E flat minor op.4, 8 Klavierstücke op.76, Variations on a Theme of Paganini op.35, 3 Ballades op.10
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded at the Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, 1994 (opp.4, 76, 10), 2002 (op.35)


Volume 4 of Joyce Hattoís Brahms cycle has a slightly odd programme Ė wouldnít the op.79 Rhapsodies belong with op.76 rather than the much earlier Scherzo and Ballades? Ė but if you buy the whole series, as I hope you will, you can tinker around with programme-building to your heartís content.

The big piece here is the Paganini Variations. There are pianists who take it that Brahms wished to recreate at the piano something of the diabolical extroversion of Paganini himself, and go for the piece hammer and tongues. I donít want to rule out such an approach, provided there is plenty of tonal variety on offer, but Joyce Hatto leaves us in no doubt that she is seeing the work through Brahmsian eyes. The theme itself has a touch of mellowness, the quirky melody bathed in a romantic glow, and later she seeks a satisfying roundness in the sound rather than virtuoso dash. I donít wish to imply she is not a virtuoso Ė this is one of those pieces where, if youíre not a virtuoso, you just wonít make it to the end Ė or that her tempi are particularly slow, though they are slow enough to allow her to find a full, rounded sonority in the more virtuosic variations, while her handling of the more lyrical moments is winsome indeed. A deeply satisfying and very musical performance.

But "satisfying" is really the adjective that comes to mind all through. In each of the smaller pieces that make up the remainder of the programme, she has a way of immediately impressing you, as each new one starts, that she knows just how this one has to go. Tempi are natural and unforced, the sound is always warm and round, the melodies sing and the accompaniments support them in just the right way. It all sounds so very right that I hardly want to single out any one piece, except to remark on her very fine "orchestration" of the closing section of the second Ballade, with its descending melody in the middle voice.

If anything is less than perfect, it is the recording, or rather the 1994 recordings which sound a little cavernous. This didnít worry me much in the gentler pieces, which means most of op.76, but the more heroic parts of the Scherzo and the Ballades donít quite expand. No complaints about the 2002 recording, which is satisfyingly full to match the performance.

I would, though, like to raise a more general consideration. I was only yesterday writing about Richterís performance of the Brahms first Sonata, and felt this was a legendary, visionary performance that could be compared only with other performances by the same artist. I also felt it might not be an ideal example for others. Hatto, on the other hand, is a model for students. So where does all this leave us? Well, if you are one of those rare geniuses such as Richter Ė and there are never more than a very few living at any given time Ė then you have to follow your own muse and try to realise your own personal vision. You may end up by illuminating some composers but swamping others, and you probably canít help this.

If, on the other hand, you arenít one of those rare geniuses but youíre very musical and have a well-schooled technique, then you (Iím sorry about this you all the time as if I really knew all this at first hand, but I think it must be like this) can try to let the composer take over, as it were, and express his music through you. This, I believe, is something of what Joyce Hatto does, a sort of pianistic equivalent of Sir Adrian Boult, who was an unfailingly warm, vital and understanding guide to a wide range of music. And I say this is a good guide for students since it is an ambition that a normal (but gifted) person can reasonably set himself, though perhaps not many will achieve it as well as Hatto does. And, as Boult showed on many occasions and as Hatto certainly showed in the 2004 performances in the fifth volume of this series, the "interpreter-performers" can sometimes achieve greatness as well as the "genius-performers".

Sorry if this sounds like pretentious twaddle, but I wish to distinguish between two totally different types of artist. Or put it another way: go to Richter for Richter, but go to Hatto for the composers she plays. And I hope this is as she would wish.

Christopher Howell

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