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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
25 Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel (1861) [24:45]
Intermezzo in b-flat minor, Op. 117, No. 2 (1892) [5:09]
Rhapsody in g minor, Op. 79, No. 2 (1879) [5:40]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trio in B-flat, Op. 97 (Archduke) (1810) [37:O8]
Solomon, piano
Henry Holst, violin
Anthony Pini, cello
Recording Dates: Brahms Variations, 1942, Originally issued as HMV 2EA 9881-9886 – C 3301-3303; Intermezzo, 1944 HMV 2EA 10197- C3406; Brahms Rhapsody, 1944, HMV 2EA 10198 – C3406; Beethoven, 1943 HMV 2EA 10028-10039 – C 3362-3366.

Solomon, born Solomon Cutner in 1902, began his career at a tender age and met with great acclaim. He was so physically small that they had to build an instrument to fit him at his debut. He continued to play concerts until he was sixteen, at which time he left the stage altogether for seven years of study. Upon his return, he became one of the world’s foremost pianists, playing recitals and concerts with all of the major orchestras. He would be forced into an early retirement in 1965 by a debilitating illness, but would live for another 23 years.

In this, the second volume of The Piano Library’s survey of his early recordings, we hear performances from 1942 to 1944 of solo music by Brahms and a major chamber work of Beethoven.

In the Handel Variations, Brahms clearly demonstrates his deep and thorough knowledge of the music of his predecessors. Technically speaking, the variations hark back to Bach’s Goldbergs in their style, yet the romantic Brahms is present in this tribute to baroque keyboard music. Most notably, there is the ever-present play between the alto and tenor voices, a device beloved of the composer, and his signature rhythmic gestures, especially the use of the hemiola, germane to both Handel and Brahms.

Recorded before the era of multiple takes and easy electronic splices, this is a performance that in my opinion actually sounds like a performance rather than a pastiche of perfections. It is refreshing to hear the occasional less than perfect piece of passage-work, a dropped note or two and the odd mismatched chord. Nonetheless, Solomon plays with a nimble touch and a great sense of style. He pours great energy into each variation and gets a clean clear tone from the piano. His tempi are sprightly and he uses a wide range of colors, making each variation fresh and exciting.

The two shorter works are played with a seriousness and profundity that is mesmerizing. I found that he was able to bring off the depth of feeling that is so vital to Brahms without ever being maudlin or turgid. In short, this is Brahms playing as it should be heard.

The Beethoven is slightly pared down, with a repeat or two eliminated as is typical for the era, so as to make for fewer sides per issue. Solomon and his collaborators are a taut, fine ensemble, balance is excellent and the players match each other in richness and quality of tone. There is an fine sense of give and take between the players and no trace of rivalry can be heard. These musicians play together for the good and service of the music, and despite the limitations of the age of the recordings, achieve a warm, generous sound. The third movement in particular is played with a sensitivity and warmth that I often find missing in more contemporary recordings ... it is as if these artists are playing for the genuine love of the music, and not just to get something down on record and move on to the next project. It is obvious that they have lived with the piece and its composer and have a definite idea as to what they wish to say.

The Piano Library have over the years issued a treasure trove of wonderful historical recordings, and this one is no exception. It would be so nice however if this and other companies that restore old recordings would give us some program notes. Except for the cursory comments about the artist, there is nothing at all about the music. It is such a small thing. We can see their catalogue online, is it really so much to ask for a bit of commentary about the music itself?

Sound quality and restoration are excellent. I played this disc in my car and on my home stereo, and I will say that listeners are better served by better equipment. In short, it is very nice to have these fine performances readily and relatively inexpensively available again. Good listening for collectors and the curious passerby alike.

Kevin Sutton




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