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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1987)
Chaconne for left hand, after Bach's Partita BWV 1004 (1877) [14:10]
Eight Klavierstücke, Op. 76 (1878) [23:42]
Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 (1879) [13:42]
Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 (1892) [23:06]
Anna Vinnitskaya (piano)
rec. 7-10 September 2014, Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany.
ALPHA 231[72:51]

After successful discs of Ravel and the composers of her native Russia, Anna Vinnitskaya turns to Germany and to Brahms. The first item here, though, is Bach via Brahms, in the form of the transcription for left hand of the Chaconne from the D minor violin Partita. It is a faithful transcription, not at all a reimagining like Busoni’s virtuoso version of the same chaconne, and Vinnitskaya treats it as such, baroque in style if not sound, with little rubato or expressive additions. The result is more austere even than the violin original, partly a result of the left hand naturally occupying the tenor register of the keyboard. It makes an imposing beginning, with a big sound from an impressive instrument.

Brahms’s opus 76 is divided equally between four works called capriccio and four called intermezzo, and Vinnitskaya observes the implied difference between the capricious fancy of the one and the repose of the other. The two capriccios that open the set are delightfully delivered, with plenty of attention to the inner parts so important in Brahms’s writing. There is abundant whimsy in the following two intermezzos, and real fire in the stormy heart of the opus, the C sharp minor Capriccio. Brahms told his publisher he was unsure about these titles for his pieces. Vinnitskaya is quoted in the CD booklet as saying that “the vague titles leave a lot of room for the interpreter’s own associations; I like that”. Whatever the associations she made, they result in very skilful advocacy across the shifting moods of this varied music.

The Two Rhapsodies of Op.79 contain some of Brahms’s most adventurous music, harmonically daring and often stormy. In the first rhapsody, in B minor, the pianist conjures up a storm at the start, and while she relaxes entrancingly for the B major middle section, there is always a sense of flow. With the second rhapsody in G minor, we come to one of Brahms’s best known piano works and many listeners will have views about how they like the piece to go. They might be surprised by Vinnitskaya’s passionate turbulence at times, with plenty of bass presence – some critics feel these rhapsodies do not hang together when treated thus. Perhaps it is the Russian manner. I was reminded of Richter’s way with these pieces more than once. It seems very valid to me, or at least one is persuaded of its validity while listening to such committed playing. These are the tracks on the disc to which I have been returning most often.

With the Seven Fantasies of Opus 116, we enter the world of late Brahms, for which the adjective most reached for is ‘autumnal’. But some of these items, especially the capriccios, continue Brahms’s high summer of Sturm und Drang. Certainly the presto energico marking of the opening D minor Capriccio suggests we will continue where the rhapsodies left off, and Vinnitskaya is no less fiery here than in Op.79. With No.2, the enchanting A minor Intermezzo, there is a withdrawn and tender reflectiveness. The terrific G minor Capriccio is superbly done, its great central melody stirring and powerful, while in the ensuing E major Intermezzo Vinnitskaya shows just how sensitive she is to the nuanced elements of Brahms’s writing, not least its questing harmonic instability.

In short, this is an intriguing Brahms disc, richly recorded and with helpful notes including some observations on the music by the pianist herself. It also well planned. Brahms structured these publications carefully, such that the succession of short pieces can seem more than the sum of its parts. It pays to present whole opus numbers, rather than select odd items as in Barry Douglas’s recent Chandos Brahms issues. The selection here makes a satisfying sequence in itself, and can even be heard straight through (maybe taking an interval at the halfway mark, after Op.76). That planning would count for nothing if the playing were not as superlative as it is. Some will prefer more poise than Anna Vinnitskaya offers at times, but there are many rewards to be found in this playing. Technically immaculate, and with a real feeling for the passionate struggle to be found in several of these works, this is often an exciting approach to a composer sometimes presented as rather staid and old-fashioned. Eduard Hanslick – who was supposed to be his leading supporter among Viennese critics - once remarked “Brahms cannot exult”. He should have heard Anna Vinnitskaya in some of the bravura moments on this disc.

Roy Westbrook



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