RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Handel Variations op.24 (1861) [26:09]
Two Rhapsodies op.79 (1879) [15:22]
Six Piano Pieces op.118 (1892) [22:18]
Four Piano Pieces op.119 (1893) [14:57]
Murray Perahia (piano)
rec. 19-24 June 2010, Saal 1, Funkhaus Berlin, Germany
SONY CLASSICAL 88679 79469 2 [78:44]
This release sees Murray Perahia returning to Brahms after a significant series of excellent Bach recordings for Sony Classical. His 1991 Sony recording of the Sonata No.3 has an assortment of Intermezzos and Rhapsodies as a filler, but this new disc sees Perahia taking the later opus numbers head-on, working up to them chronologically via the Handel Variations and Rhapsodies Op.79 which, as Katrin Eich says in her booklet notes, each represent an ‘end point’ at certain stages in Brahms’ compositional output.
As far as I’m concerned the standard against any recording of Brahms’ solo piano variations is that set by Garrick Ohlsson on Hyperion CDA67777. Both players’ timings for the whole piece are fairly similar. Ohlsson is marginally more stately in the opening theme, but with only a slight extra measure of lightness in touch Perahia is about 30 seconds swifter overall, which over 25 minutes isn’t appreciable. The differences in character are present, but I initially found it harder than I imagined to expose telling contrasts and any clear preference. I like Ohlsson’s chunkily rhythmic first variation, but appreciate Perahia’s more spacious lyricism in the second. These are the kinds of swings and roundabouts which one finds, and in the end life is too short to split hairs over what, after all, are two excellent recordings. Ohlsson’s piano sound is a little richer and given greater bloom in the bass; Perahia’s is tighter and ultimately a little better balanced over the entire range. In the end, it is Ohlsson who gets my laurels for the fun and funky variations - Perahia for his singing expressive range in the lyrical ones, though both are also excellent in each variety of variation. The richer Hyperion bass line, for instance, gives the canonic sixth variation a special quality for Ohlsson. Perahia chooses to link the notes with a kind of quasi-legato feel in the con vivacità seventh variation, when the score clearly asks for accents and staccato. He gets away with this somehow, and the relationship with the 8th variation’s gallop is certainly more exciting. I’m also intrigued by the way he softens the last few sf octave entries in this piece where the score makes no suggestion of a diminuendo.
Murray Perahia is clearly his own man, and even with this certain amount of license in the Variations the piece as a whole and all its individual elements work very well indeed. I still very much love Garrick Ohlsson’s performance, but if forced to choose then in the end Murray Perahia wins me over with his alchemy with the variations such as the 12th, and his greater sense of funereal narrative in the subsequent 13th, which Ohlsson does charge at somewhat, even though it is marked f espress. He also pretty much ignores the più mosso marking in the 17th variation, which Perahia uses to quasi-crank up the tension. This is reversed by Brahms in the waterfall of the 18th variation and the disarming lilt of the 19th which is light and detached with Perahia, more sostenuto with Ohlsson which reduces the vivace effect a little. These are all marginal points of detail and matter less when taken in isolation. I do however find myself agreeing with Perahia more often than with Ohlsson in the end, so it’s a win on points for Sony Classical, though I still stand by my choice of Garrick Ohlsson’s recording as a top recommendation for the Brahms variations as a complete set. Perahia’s is a performance which marries power and majestic technical prowess with a clarity of vision and sensitivity of touch in the tenderness of the lyrical variations which is compelling and irresistible. As far as power goes, it’s almost as if the instrument itself is only just capable of sustaining the impact of those chords at 25:14 under Perahia’s mighty heft, but Ohlsson himself pushes the recording equipment to its limits as well near this point, so it’s about honours equal in this particular superhuman string-bending competition.
The remaining works can be compared with Radu Lupu’s classic recordings on Decca, now available in a highly desirable box set. Lupu’s playing is monumental and symphonic, while at the same time highly poetic and sensitive to the humanity of Brahms’ expressive world and distinctive sonorities. Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu have worked together as extremely successful duo partners and clearly have a similar empathy in their desire to achieve truth in the composers they perform. In other words, there is no ‘better than’ in any comparison which can be made: I shall always want to have both around, though perhaps for subtly different reasons.
If anything, Perahia outplays Lupu in the symphonic stakes when it comes to the Rhapsody Op.79 No.1. He is positively explosive in the ‘starting block’ opening theme and each of its repetitions. Lupu is more lyrical in the subsequent material, with Perahia separating notes and creating greater contrast and a certain ‘spring’ in his step, something which Lupu paints with a wider brush. Both pianists are masters of colour, though with the benefits of a more detailed and brighter piano sound Perahia gives the impression of wider variety. Perahia takes broader rubati in the Rhapsody Op.79 No.2, with Lupu more connected and describing a greater arc, Perahia’s approach taking us through a sort of labyrinth, with each section a subtly different world, but each with a terrifying and awe-inspiring sense of grandeur.
Even more rhapsodic than the Rhapsodies, the Klavierstücke Op.118 offers the pianist every opportunity to reflect the potential of every aspect of their instrument to maximum effect, from high drama to the utmost lyrical tenderness. I love Radu Lupu’s luminous playing in these pieces, especially in the movingly melodic second and fifth pieces, as well as his thundering resonance in the thicker-textured and more impassioned works. Murray Perahia once again benefits from a more transparent and communicatively recorded piano sound, but is also the equal and at times the preferred option in terms of performance. Take the Ballade which is the third of the pieces. Lupu drives forward in a compact and dramatic fashion, excelling in the contrasts between the lyrical and the strikingly impressive. Perahia leaves just a little more air around the notes, giving the music a more narrative flavour without robbing it of its dramatic character. There is more surprise in the revelations which follow each transition as well, provided by a more heightened sense of anticipation. Whatever the comparative pluses and minuses, Perahia delivers at every crucial point, with a masterfully emotive second Intermezzo, eschewing superficial sweetness but still creating a marvellous atmosphere of the right kind of sentiment. There’s a little sonic ‘ghost’ which pops up at 2:34 in this piece, but this takes nothing away from a performance here and elsewhere in an Op.118 collection which will have you coming back for more, time and again. Just as a parting comment on this work, and while the subject of ghosts is still in the air, don’t you find something spectral and genuinely haunting in the way Perahia plays the fantasy-like introduction to the final Intermezzo?
Haunting and hauntingly beautiful moods are also created in the Klavierstücke Op.118, with Perahia at one with Brahms’ soulful longings, sense of loss and regret, and core of strength from creativity and the human spirit. The first B minor piece is particularly moving, a far greater canvas than its three and a half minutes suggest. Lupu is beautiful here as well, lingering just a little less and with perhaps a shade tighter palette of range and colour, but still getting to the heart of the message. Where he does linger more is in the Intermezzo in E minor, taking a whole minute longer than Perahia, who seeks to dance more in the central waltz section. Good humour and a kind of infectious laugh come across in Perahia’s Grazioso e giocoso third Intermezzo, and the wonderful final gestures will have you giggling with incredulity. There’s little to choose between him and Lupu here, though I suppose Perahia wins marginally in terms of ‘wit’. The final work is a Rhapsodie marked Allegro risoluto, and Perahia builds something of a fortress with the opening chords, again taking a more spacious view than Lupu, but at the same time creating a larger-scale structure from which to hang the rest of the piece. The ‘lighter’ central section is sheer delight here, the tightly arpeggiated accompanying chords and subtle touches in the bass lines and harmonies creating something genuinely Brahmsian and really rather magical.
To conclude; this is a superbly recorded piano disc of some of the best romantic repertoire ever written for the instrument, played by one of the finest performers of our time at the peak of the mature phase in his career – and you’re asking me if it’s recommended?
Do you really need to ask if this is any good?