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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Early Piano Works Volume 1
Sonata No.2 Op.2 (1852) [26:49]
Variationen über ein Thema von Robert Schumann Op.9 (1854) [16:32]
Ballades Op.10 (1854) [22:43]
Hardy Rittner (fortepiano)
rec. 1-2 October 2007, Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmünster
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM MDG904 1494-6 [66:53]
Experience Classicsonline

I’ve had quite a hunt for recordings of Brahms’s solo piano works on fortepiano, but have had to conclude that they are fairly thin on the ground. All the more reason to welcome the start of a new series from MDG: that of Brahms’s Early Piano Works performed by the multi prizewinning Hardy Rittner, on a Johann Baptist Streicher fortepiano.
 
The history of the Streicher name in fortepiano building in the 19th century is given in the booklet notes, and the instrument used for this recording is a fairly recently restored example from 1851 – so it would have been brand new when the works on this disc were composed. Brahms certainly knew and approved of these instruments, recommending them to friends and colleagues in letters which have been preserved for posterity. The sound we have on this excellent SACD recording is therefore one we know must have been familiar to the composer.
 
This legacy of authentic sound is surprisingly rich and sonorous, and most certainly not clattery and fatiguing. The development of the fortepiano from its invention in the late 18th century meant that by the mid-1850s such instruments had grown from the rather delicate examples which composers such as Haydn would have known. The Streicher instrument on this recording has a full-fat seven octaves, and uses the jack action patented by Streicher in 1831 which claimed advances on the more ubiquitous Viennese mechanics of the time. The hammers sound robustly firm, but not overly hard. This means that the attack is good and has plenty of clarity, but that the warmth of tone in the strings can also be brought out by the player.
 
More often than not I prefer to compare like with like in such reviews as these, but all of my alternatives are played on modern grand pianos. I did have a listen, to remind myself of the pieces, and to see if there were any essential differences which the modern instrument made to the overall impression of the music. Taking Martin Jones on his complete 1992 Brahms box from Nimbus, and I was intrigued to hear how similar the general picture was – in musical terms at least. The dramatic Beethovenian twists and turns of the Sonata No.2 Op.2 hold equal weight on both instruments of course, and with few places for the potential added sustaining power of the modern grand one might not expect so much stretching to go on. The associations one can have with other composers in this work come through with an even more pungent sense on the fortepiano, and whiffs of Schubert and Liszt are unmistakeable, along with those of late Beethoven. This is however strong music in its own right, and Rittner gives a sterling rendition of its virtuosic and even theatrical splendour.
 
Martin Jones has never been one for expressive eccentricities, and in fact Rittner’s timings are, other than in the Variationen, consistently longer. Where the changes are most apparent is in the difference in cumulative power in, for instance, the first of the Ballades Op.10. Sheer orchestral force is an element in big piano playing of today, but Brahms’s effects in this piece on the Streicher are, while dramatic enough, more those of colour than of sheer volume. Other aspects of the music are brought out as a result, and I can imagine even the most seasoned of Brahms fans hearing these works with new ears.

Pedalling is also a feature of the Streicher. You could never get away with the kind of atmospheric wash of sound Rittner obtains in the opening of the second Andante of the Ballades, but the effect here is quite stunning. The light, swiftly sequential chords later on sound like river water flowing over rounded pebbles – every corner of these works reveals new delights on this recording. The dry, repeating bass in the Intermezzo movement has a strange obsessive quality, but the subtle differences Brahms throws in are all clearly audible –sometimes with, sometimes without that added fifth: and the contrast with that ethereal higher section is quite magical. The final Andante con moto of the Ballade No.4 was the only time I felt there might be a case for arguing for a little less pedal here and there, or more half pedalling to give us just a little more clarity. The effect will do no harm to Brahms’s avant-garde credentials, but the piece sounds more other-worldly here than even Glenn Gould in his rather more (over)passionate 1982 recording.
 
The central gem on this disc is the gorgeous Variationen über ein Thema von Robert Schumann Op.9. What a difference two years had made between the precocious Op.2 Sonata and these Op. 9 and Op.10 masterpieces. Rittner captures the freshness of invention in these variations, and gives them that sense of improvisational spontaneity which I always feel they need. There were again one or two moments when I felt myself urging the pianist to raise that pedal a little, but there is no loss in the expressive quality in the lyrical variations, and the contrapuntal effects which are revealed in Rittner’s playing make for a more moving experience than in many performances I have heard.
 
There is an increasing variety of ‘historical’ recordings of composers from the romantic period now appearing, including a nice set of the violin sonatas on Challenge Classics which also uses a Streicher piano. Fortepiano has appeared more often in Brahms’s chamber music than for his solo piano pieces, and this is understandable to an extent. Brahms’s piano music is so rich and ‘complete’ that the need for any kind of authentic performance has until now seemed to be less of an issue than with earlier classical composers. With current advances in restoration techniques for these ancient instruments we can be pretty confident that the composer would have revelled in the results from this release, and we can all now close our eyes and imagine ourselves transported to a 19th century concert hall.
 
Dominy Clements
 

 


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