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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Complete Works for Piano Vol. 3

Sonata no.3 in F minor op.5, Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel op.24
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded in the Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge (UK), 2002 (op.5), 2002-3 (op.24)

The sonata gets a thought-provoking performance and after a few comparisons with performances by Earl Wild and Stephen Hough I came to wonder if what at first seemed a drawback was not actually a point in favour of this new version.

Let me explain. Crude timings will tell you that Hatto takes longer over all but the brief 4th movement (remember this is a sonata with 5 movements). But when she launches each movement she does not seem slow at all, indeed quite the reverse in the exuberant Scherzo. What happens is that, sooner than the other two, she starts relaxing the tension so that cantabile second subjects or the trio of the Scherzo seem not so much lyrical parentheses as points of repose. The result is that these lyrical points emerge as the real heart of the sonata with the more dramatic moments apparently coincidental to them. One supposes that the ideal is to keep a balance between the various elements rather than tip the scales one way or the other, but one must also salute the lyrical warmth with which these passages are played. Also, in the finale Hatto takes very seriously Brahmsís "ma rubato" direction to produce a quirky, almost tempo-less beginning which is then stabilized by the lyrical music. Thereafter the movement gathers in strength and stability so that in the end the energetic music gets the upper hand. I would say this finale produces the most inspired playing in this performance, whereas a rehearing didnít entirely persuade me to withdraw my initial impression that the broad first movement is a bit laboured at times. Still, itís an interesting performance and all things considered I would as soon listen to it as either of the other two Iíve mentioned. They are, however, better recorded (especially Hough on Hyperion); the sound here is not bad but a bit cavernous and blurry.

The sound is better in the Handel Variations, or perhaps I ceased to notice, for I can only describe this performance as enthralling. Interestingly, while in the Paganini Variations (see Volume 4) Hatto bathed the theme in Brahmsian warmth, here she gives a perky, harpsichord-like rendering, as though she were about to play Handelís own variations on this theme (it might have been rather nice if she had done so, as a prelude Ė there would have been space on the disc). There is something rather baroque, too, about the festive first variation, as though Brahms is letting himself into the show gradually. This is a marvellously cholesterol-free performance, with tempi often very swift indeed, obtaining a Mendelssohnian fleetness without losing sight of the rich Brahmsian sonority, while the more cantabile variations have a Viennese grace. Another aspect of this performance is its sense of humour, something we do not always give Brahms credit for. But I donít want to single out particular variations since I was quite bowled over, not just by the individual characterisations but by the overall sweep of it all. Not for the first time, I note that in some of her very recent performances (post 2000) Joyce Hatto, always a reliable and sympathetic artist, has touched new heights; on this particular day she was truly inspired.

Day? I find it intriguing that a performance which sounds so all of a piece should apparently have been recorded over two years. Perhaps the answer (we are not told the actual dates) is that she started playing late on December 31st 2002 and played the New Year in; thatís the sort of performance it is.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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