All three of Brahms’ sonatas for piano are early works, and the
third of the series is the longest of all his solo piano compositions.
Unusually cast in five movements, it opens with an uncompromising
gesture propelling the listener into a first movement which, with
the self confidence of youth, is a bold and ambitious essay in
sonata form. The drama is inexorable in its growth and development,
and even if we feel the mature Brahms would have fashioned a more
subtle close than the massive chords used here we can only marvel
at the strength of purpose of so young a composer. The slow movement
is prefaced by some lines from a poem by C. O. Sternau telling
of two hearts united as evening falls, and indeed Claudio Arrau
held the view that this movement was rivalled only by Tristan
as an expression of erotic love. The Scherzo is bluff and strong,
making the longer note values of the trio all the more affecting.
The fourth movement, Intermezzo, carries a German subtitle, Rückblick.
This means a backward look or glance, here, the second movement
revisited but with a foreboding, almost funereal aspect. The Finale
has a Hungarian flavour, albeit a subtle one, with a main theme
featuring the composer’s favourite three against two rhythms.
The second contrasting theme is a cantabile melody which
becomes the material from which Brahms builds his coda. One faster
section succeeds another at breakneck pace leading to an exhilarating,
was born in 1964 and is currently Director of Keyboard Studies
at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. He has
made several recordings, but this one, which first appeared
on the Tring International label, is the first I have heard.
It is excellent. There are interpretations of the sonata with
more fire than here – I’m thinking in particular of Antti Sirrala’s
remarkable performance on Ondine – but you’d be hard pressed
to find one as poetic as this, and given that Brahms’ rather
youthful impetuosity can easily become relentless I think I
prefer a reading which tends towards that aspect. Technically
faultless, O’Hora also demonstrates total control of the sonata’s
his recital with six glimpses into that extraordinarily intimate
inner world which is Brahms’ shorter piano music. The most immediately
striking difference in the composer’s manner concerns texture:
it is frequently impossible to pick out the melodic line in
these pieces where figuration, pulse and harmonic movement are
more important. A strong vein of melancholy is evident, too,
even in the more lively pieces which rarely close in optimistic
mood. Deeply rewarding, they receive very sympathetic performances
The first of
the Op. 117 pieces – like the slow movement of the sonata on
this disc – is headed with a quotation from verse, in this case
from Herder’s translation of Scottish folk songs. The words
fit the gently lilting melody, and the simple harmonic accompaniment
perfectly complements the lullaby text. On the other hand, the
first of the two Op. 79 Rhapsodies is a turbulent affair. A
gentler middle section leads to a return of the opening music
which, in turn, rises to a dramatic and passionate climax. All
conflict seems to have evaporated, however, in the tranquil
closing coda in the major key. Not so the second Rhapsody –
note that O’Hora does not play them one after the other in his
recital – which, after a similarly stormy and troubled journey
closes in the deepest gloom.
The melodic line
is easily perceived in the A major Intermezzo, and how subtly
the composer varies the harmony of the opening when it returns
after the triplet accompanied middle section. This is music
of the utmost tenderness. The Intermezzo in E flat minor inhabits
a totally different world. Based on the tiny three-note motif
heard at the outset, harmonic resolution is delayed throughout
the first page, arriving only at the end of the first paragraph.
A second paragraph reaches similar conclusions. After a ray
or two of hope as the music turns to the major key, the piece
eventually closes in an atmosphere as introspective and hopeless
as any in all of Brahms.
The disc closes
with the Rhapsody in E flat major. This begins assertively,
and other ideas include the transformation of this main theme,
pianissimo, before its real return leads to the impressive,
bravura coda. We might imagine that Brahms, in his final published
piano music, deliberately sought a positive finish. If so we
should not forget that this piece, like Schubert’s Impromptu
in the same key, begins brightly but closes firmly in the minor,
grimly determined but with clouds gathering.
I have only praise
for the playing of Ronan O’Hora in these pieces. In addition
to the qualities he shows in the sonata he also demonstrates
here his mastery of those two subtle and elusive qualities so
important in Brahms’ shorter piano works, texture and rubato.
The recording is fine, but perhaps the occasional hardness of
tone, which must be my only criticism, has its origin there.
The disc is presented with two thoughtful essays, one by the
pianist, and is a fine bargain.