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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5 (1853) [42:17]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 (1861) [29:33]
Jonathan Plowright (piano)
rec. August 2011, Potton Hall, Saxmundham, Suffolk, England
BIS-SACD-2047 [72:45]

Jonathan Plowright is more than just the next ‘new thing’ to arrive on the piano scene, having already earned considerable laurels and awards for CD recordings which include works by Paderewski, and his Hommage à Chopin on the Hyperion label. With his BIS début we have the first of what promises to be a fascinating journey.
Plowright wakes us up from the start with his Sonata No. 3, with the last chord of each bar in the proclaiming opening theme seemingly wilfully truncated. Just a quick reminder of Murray Perahia on Sony Classical here reminds us how ‘fat’ these chords are usually made. Plowright follows Brahms’ notation accurately, though you might expect to see eighth rather than quarter notes at the end of each bar on hearing this version. This is also in contrast to my main reference, that of Radu Lupu in his Decca recording (see review). Plowright is going for a maximum of clarity, easing up as much as possible on the use of the pedal and managing to retain expressive lyricism without always feeling the need to elongate bass notes or harmonic supports beyond their written value.
Without going into a micro-analysis of this performance, Jonathan Plowright’s recording of this work goes beyond the ‘orchestral’ of Lupu. If Brahms ever wrote a symphony for the piano then the Sonata No. 3 Op.5 is very much this piece, and Plowright’s range of expression, his daring periods of absolute repose, extended passages of development and extremes of contrast deliver this impression as few other performances I have encountered. He is not particularly controversial in this however, pretty much keeping to the letter of Brahms’ score – more so in fact than Lupu, who has a tendency to stretch some rhythmic features. This individualism in the latter ultimately results in a magnificent, but more pianistic performance. With Plowright I kept coming back to that idea of a piano reduction of a tremendous symphonic work – the sheer heft of a grand musical tradition carrying the music beyond pianism to something which engages the imagination on multiple levels.
It feels as if it should be, but the first movement is by no means the longest, and Plowright’s second Andante espressivo movement is a good minute and a half longer than Lupu’s at nearly 14 minutes. This is more the romanticism of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ rather than anything overblown and Mahlerian, but you can sense the music pulling in those two directions, seeking expression which is perhaps just beyond the capabilities of a single keyboard, but achieving a satisfying synthesis of other-worldly transcendence and delicious harmonic thrills. The sometimes brutal waltz of the Scherzo is taken more swiftly than Lupu, sweeping us along in more of a Viennese whirl than introducing that sense of dark Mussorgskian danger that Lupu sometimes implies. With the Intermezzo Plowright is more meditative, again bringing us in not much short of two minutes longer than Lupu. This turns just two pages of music into something truly magical: less a transition than a kind of inner garden from beyond and over which the big branches of the other movements sway, and not necessarily invitingly. It is with the Finale that the urgency of Plowright’s basic tempo in the opening makes Lupu sound as if he is seeking some kind of Lisztian poetry – by which I don’t imply negative comparison, but with Plowright the feeling of the journey home kicks in much earlier. He deals with the rubato demands which Brahms keeps throwing in an with irresistible sense of colour and time suspended, and even that patriotic section after bar 140 or 3:22 on this recording is elegantly inspiring, even if it does sound as if Brahms has copped out a little on the white heat of inspiration which permeates the rest of the work. This is Plowright’s ‘symphonic’ feel at work again, alive to Brahms’ inclination to reach into the variations stockpile in order to gain footholds on new musical regions, and the fireworks with which the piece ends are indeed spectacular.
Murray Perahia is pretty hard to beat in his magnificent Sony Classical recording of the Handel Variations (see review), and I’m still a big admirer of Garrick Ohlsson’s Hyperion recording (see review). Plowright is around 3 minutes longer than both overall, taking quite a broad perambulatory view of the little Variation III and giving just that extra feeling of sustain in some the slower variations – nothing too extreme, but enough to deliver a performance with a grander sense of scale and proportion than either of the two comparison examples. Plowright’s faster variations are every bit as spectacular and exciting as you would want however, and he delivers all of that rhythmic punch and swing which makes much of this music so compelling. BIS has very kindly given every variation its own access point, which is invaluable for study purposes or if you are just after that quick inspirational Brahms ‘fix’; keying in Variation XX for instance, just to make sure all is well with the world before dashing out of the front door.
This production is every bit up to BIS’s usual high standards, with the piano superbly captured in the now familiar Potton Hall acoustic, and with fine booklet notes by Malcolm MacDonald. Having already heard plenty of recordings of this repertoire, and indeed constantly seeing the same music crop up in the new release catalogues I was beginning to wonder if now might be the time to throw in the towel and do something other than this reviewing lark. Jonathan Plowright’s performances soon made me into a believer again, and I suggest he might be able to do the same for you.
Dominy Clements