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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Waltzes, Op. 39 [19:49]
Theme with Variations in D minor [10:57]
Intermezzo, Op. 119 No. 1 in B minor [3:00]
Intermezzo, Op. 119 No. 3 in C major [1:51]
Intermezzo, Op. 116 No. 5 in E minor [3:10]
Sonata No. 2, Op. 2 in F sharp minor [28:35]
Barry Douglas (piano)
rec. West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, 31 March-1 April 2014
CHANDOS CHAN10833 [67:26]

I’ve already been impressed with the first two instalments in this Brahms cycle by Barry Douglas (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2). In this third programme he again offers a mixed programme which means, for example, that we get just three of the Intermezzi. Collectors may find it a trifle frustrating that the complete sets of the Op 116 -119 pieces are being split across several discs but the die is cast as far as that goes and I can appreciate the desire to present a varied programme on each disc.

Volume 2 brought us the Third Sonata; here the main offering is the Second Sonata. This was the work with which the young Brahms announced himself to Robert and Clara Schumann, playing it to them – along with some other compositions – at their first meeting in September 1853. What an impression it must have made on them, especially the tumultuous first movement. Small wonder that Robert immediately began to make interest on behalf of the young tyro with his publishers, Breitkopf & Härtel. It was in gratitude for Robert’s efforts on his behalf that Brahms asked permission shortly thereafter to dedicate the sonata to Clara.

The sonata is startlingly original in some aspects of its design and tone of voice, especially in the second movement. The first movement is full of passionate, fiery music. It’s the creation of a young man – of a young, uncaged lion, it seems at times. Douglas’s playing is surging and powerful in these tempestuous pages and hearing him in this movement made me hope that this Chandos series might be extended to include the piano concertos; on this showing I should love to hear him in the D minor concerto. After such a tumultuous movement the sudden ending is something of a surprise. The subdued opening of the second movement provides welcome and necessary contrast. The movement is a theme and variations. Its opening seems strange and even unworldly and Douglas lays it out with fine subtlety and in an expertly controlled way. The first half of the movement is quite unusual; the music is often probing and questing. Douglas is very imaginative here and later when Brahms becomes more expansive in tone Douglas responds very well to the change. The scherzo follows without a pause so that, as Nicholas Marston’s notes suggest, it seems like a continuation of the preceding movement. Douglas gives a very strong performance. He’s very convincing too in the extensive finale. After the ruminative opening, which he shades very effectively, much of the remainder of the movement is quite turbulent; here Douglas has the necessary resources of pianistic power. In summary, this is a highly convincing reading of the Second Sonata.

We are offered three short Intermezzi. I admired the delicate touch that’s in evidence during Op. 119 No. 1. The most remarkable of these pieces is Op. 116 No. 5. It’s only a short piece but its spare textures and the restless mirroring of the right and left hands are fascinating. The music dates from the early 1890s but it sounds in some ways as if it could have been written a couple of decades later: one is reminded of Schoenberg’s respect for the progressive nature of Brahms’s music.

We find Brahms in a much lighter vein in the sixteen waltzes that comprise his Op. 39. Originally written for four hands in 1865, Brahms subsequently re-worked the music into two arrangements for solo pianist, both of which were published in 1867. Here Barry Douglas offers the first, more demanding arrangement. The waltzes are all short – none of them plays for as long as two minutes – but they’re expertly crafted and a delightful example of Brahms at his sunniest and most relaxed. Douglas plays them with great finesse and when so much else on the disc represents Brahms in serious vein it’s nice to have this collection of miniatures for contrast.

The Theme with Variations in D minor is Brahms’s re-working of a movement from his String Sextet in B flat, Op. 18. The original movement dates from 1859. The piano version was made the following year and offered as a fortieth birthday present to Clara. The music works really well on the piano; in fact, it’s a super piece and Douglas gives a terrific performance of it.

Barry Douglas is a fine and authoritative guide to Brahms’s music and I’ve enjoyed this latest volume in his series just as much as the previous two releases. The music is wonderful and Douglas is a compelling advocate for it. The recording sessions took place in the same Cambridge venue that was used for the preceding volumes and Douglas plays the same Steinway. The recorded sound is very pleasing. The notes are good. This is proving to be an estimable series and I look forward to hearing Barry Douglas in more Brahms before too long.

John Quinn

Previous review: Roy Westbrook



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