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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]

The first two instalments in this Chandos series of the Brahms solo piano music (Volume 1 ~~ Volume 2) have won high praise, both here and elsewhere. Barry Douglas has long been admired in Brahms and writes in the booklet “I treasure every phrase. I love every note.” Certainly he plays it all con amore, often with insight and invariably with impressive virtuosity.

The main reservation thus far has been that each issue does not include any complete opus number of the smaller piano pieces, but rather a selection from different sets. Perhaps this will be corrected if the set is eventually reissued complete in one box. If not, then collectors wanting to hear Douglas even in the three pieces of Op.117 will have to listen to three separate CDs, since numbers 1 and 2 of that set are on CDs 1 and 2, with number 3 yet to appear. Yet it works well enough here as a planned recital, if only we can get beyond our gramophone-created habit of hearing the pieces as sets. Here we have numbers 1 and 3 of the Op.119 set followed by a single piece from Op.116, the fifth of that set of seven fantasies. It might be that we listen better if the sequence is slightly unexpected in this way, requiring us to attend closely to each of these gems as individual creations.

The opening sequence of Waltzes Op. 39 is done complete however, and though all 16 waltzes are individually tracked, they are played in a persuasive continuous sweep that makes it seem one work, ending not with the most popular, the A flat number 15, but with the quiet pathos of the D minor. Ivor Keys’ book on Brahms suggests this ending might be a nod to Schumann’s manner in his Kinderszenen and elsewhere, of closing in a mood of gentle melancholy. Douglas chooses the harder solo version of the two that Brahms prepared from his four-hand original hit publication, but it never sounds like that, so expertly is it played. The following Theme with Variations — arranged from the Op.18 string sextet — is given with the austere majesty it requires. In this it surpasses in that particular quality even the fine 2013 Chandos version from Imogen Cooper (review).

The three intermezzi are each expressively done, with only the delightful C major Op.119/3 a slight disappointment. That is because I can never get beyond Curzon’s enchanted 1962 reading, which used to be coupled with Brahms Third sonata and the late Schubert B flat sonata in one of the great piano CDs. Now you have to get a limited edition box of four CDs “Clifford Curzon: Decca Recordings 1941-72, Vol.2” but you probably should get that anyway; that is unless you already have too much of the contents (review). Curzon’s Op.119/3 is truly grazioso e giocoso, and the 6/8 lilt is kept constantly airbound somehow, leggiero throughout as marked. Keys calls this piece a “true quick-silver intermezzo (only 1 minutes)” and Curzon takes just 1:37. Barry Douglas at 1:51 hears this piece differently, but is still convincing enough at that steadier tempo.

The main item on the programme is the F sharp minor sonata, Brahms’ second published sonata, though much of it was written before the C Major sonata, his official sonata No.1. So this is music of an ambitious 19 year-old, the young Romantic firebrand who so impressed Robert and Clara Schumann. As such it is often dismissed as an apprentice work, even though Brahms was a notorious destroyer of any scores he did not feel met his highest standards. Since he allowed it to survive and help launch his career as composer and pianist, it must have something to be said for it. It still needs eminent champions, and used to have two in Sviatoslav Richter and Claudio Arrau no less, whose recordings were once on Philips.

Barry Douglas is a worthy successor to those giants, and his Op.2 receives the full Sturm und Drang treatment, reminding us that young Brahms did not begin his musical life as the arch-conservative bearded curmudgeon of the late pieces. Douglas launches the piece in muscular style with power and authority, and throughout he makes light of the complex textures — at times needing three staves. He is searchingly slow in the andante con espressione theme, another theme and variations. Here though I felt Richter’s and Arrau’s flowing tempo worked rather better (5:12 and 5:19 to Douglas’s 6:19) but nowhere else need Douglas fear any comparison. He sound as if he completely believes in the work and really does “treasure every phrase”. It surpasses even the very good versions in complete sets from Gerhard Oppitz (RCA) and Martin Jones (Nimbus), and matches that of Katchen in his Decca survey, and has much finer sound than any of these.

Since the Sonata No.2 is hard to come by on a single disc, it is this third volume that will appeal most to those not intent on collecting the whole series but want something of Douglas’s solo Brahms and lack a modern recording of this F sharp minor sonata.

There is another very fine new one on BIS from Jonathan Plowright, but that is about it outside the complete surveys. The Chandos recorded sound is very good indeed, and this early sonata – and the superb account of the Waltzes – make this a fine addition not only to Barry Douglas’s series, but to the Brahms solo piano discography more generally.

Roy Westbrook