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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5 (1853) [39:24]
Intermezzo in E flat major, Op. 117/1 (1892) [4:34]
Rhapsody in B minor, Op. 79/1 (1879) [10:17]
Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118/2 (1893) [5:32]
Rhapsody in G minor, Op. 79/2 (1879) [6:21]
Intermezzo in E flat minor, Op. 118/6 (1893) [5:30]
Rhapsody in E flat major, Op. 119/4 (1893) [5:07]
Ronan O’Hora (piano)
rec. 1996
REGIS RRC1302 [76:47]


Experience Classicsonline

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, abandoned close.

Ronan O’Hora 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 large-scale structure.

He continues 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 here.

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.

William Hedley



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