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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Sonata No 2 in F flat Major Op. 2 (1852) [29.18]
Eight Piano Pieces Op. 76 (1871-1878): 1. Capriccio in F sharp minor [3.55]; 2. Capriccio in B minor [3.45]; 3. Intermezzo in A flat [3.20]; 4. Intermezzo in B flat major [2.21]; 5. Capriccio in C sharp minor [3.25]; 6. Intermezzo in A major [3.36]; 7. Intermezzo in A minor [3.02]; 8.Capriccio in C major [4.34]
Three Intermezzi Op. 117 (1892): E flat major [5.28]; B flat minor [5.17]; C sharp minor [7.21]
Libor Novacek (piano)
rec. 11-13 January 2008, Potton Hall, Suffolk. DDD
LANDOR LAN285 [75.48]
Experience Classicsonline

This CD highlights Libor Novacek with its cover and photographs … and why not. His biography is offered at the back of the booklet which also contains a fascinating essay by Jeremy Hayes on Brahms and on the recorded pieces.
Novacek was born in Prague. His reputation was made with performances of Liszt and Brahms and by winning the inaugural Landor Competition which has given him a contract with this record company. His disc of Liszt won the ‘Diplome d’Honneur’. He has performed in Britain - I heard him at the ‘Three Choirs Festival’ - as well as in places as far-flung as South America and Africa. I admit immediately that I warmed to his music-making and was delighted to hear this disc.
The main work is the early Sonata Op. 2 in F sharp. The Op. 1 Sonata had been in C. It’s possible that they were both conceived at the same time: 1852-3. Also in 1853 there was a third sonata in F minor Op. 5. It’s important to remember that Robert Schumann was still alive at this time. As with the Op. 76 pieces there is also a strong emotional association with Clara Schumann. Indeed the first of Op. 76, a deeply passionate Capriccio in F sharp minor, was written for Clara to celebrate her birthday. Significantly it also marks the anniversary of her wedding although by then Robert had been dead for some twenty years. Anyway back to the Sonata.
Curiously it is dedicated not to ‘The Schumanns' but to ‘Clara Schumann in admiration’. It is in four movements with the second, a set of variations on a 13th century song attached to the third which is a Scherzo and Trio. It has a powerful opening movement which amazed the Schumanns - Clara calling it “a veiled symphony”. This however is young-man’s music - Brahms was 20 when he first played the piece to them - and it is therefore appropriate that on this CD a young man is playing the work. Novacek captures the thunderous power of the opening very well and also has a lovely way of coaxing the second movement into existence. You may feel that he loses his way a little in the finale. If that is so then it may be because the slow music, which also acts as a magical coda, reappears unexpectedly and spoils the music’s seemingly unshadowed flow and clear structure.
Op. 76 is divided into two separate sets not just of Capriccios and Intermezzi but two of each per set. They were written over a seven year span but published in two distinct groups. The first four or first book are quite emotionally contrasting. However the difference between a Capriccio and an Intermezzo is not always as clear-cut as you might think. The former tend towards a faster tempo and are often of an agitated mood like the aforementioned F# minor and indeed number five in C sharp minor. The Intermezzo although often more melancholy and reflective like number three in A flat major, this is not always the case. Brahms’ fingerprint rhythm of three against two, or three against four - which often, apparently, confused Clara - is used both in the Capriccio in C sharp to create passion and instability. Its successor, the Intermezzo in A major has a tune with a gently flowing accompaniment. The liner-notes mention Chopin as an influence in this Intermezzo. Robert Schumann can be heard in the chromatic passages especially in the surprisingly dark C major Capriccio. The notes also quote Stephen Kovacevich who remarks that the opening of this piece even presages Scriabin.
One of Brahms’ last publications was the Three Intermezzi which end the CD - autumnal works if ever there were any. Brahms called them “Three Lullabies for my suffering”. The justly famous first one in E flat is based on a Scottish Lullaby. The second one with its searching harmony was much admired by Schoenberg. The ternary form third has an incredibly sad opening unison melody the mood of which is not dispersed by a contrasting middle section. Novacek plays these with a suitable inwardness and introversion. The recording helps here. Generally, although warm, it does not let the instrument shine and glow. The Capriccios could have done with that, but in these lyrical and rather withdrawn Intermezzi the recording helps most effectively.
I have enjoyed this disc very much. It is not a conveniently planned programme and throws up the unfamiliar with the better known. Novacek has something to say about each work and is obviously drawn to this repertoire. Altogether this is a disc worth investigating.
Gary Higginson


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