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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Works For Solo Piano - Volume 5
Intermezzo, Op. 118 No. 1 in A minor (1893) [1:53]
Sarabande in A minor, WoO 5 posth. No. 1 (1854) [2:31]
Variations on a Theme by Niccolò Paganini, Op. 35, Book II (1865) [10:25]
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21, No. 1 (1857) [16:38]
Sarabande in B minor, WoO 5 posth No. 2 (1855) [3:08]
Scherzo in E flat minor, Op. 4 (1851) [9:15]
Intermezzo, Op. 76 No. 3 in A flat major (1879) [2:14]
Intermezzo, Op. 118 No. 4 in F minor (1893) [2:53]
Hungarian Dance, WoO 1 No. 3 in F major [2:23]
Intermezzo, Op. 76 No. 4 in B flat major (1879) [2:08]
Variations on a Hungarian Song, Op. 21, No. 2 (?1854) [6:39]
Hungarian Dance, WoO 1 No. 1 in G minor [3:02]
Hungarian Dance, WoO 1 No. 5 in F sharp minor [2:24]
Barry Douglas (piano)
rec. West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, 12-13 April 2015
CHANDOS CHAN10878 [67:14]

Here is Volume Five of Barry Douglas’s impressive survey of the solo piano music of Brahms. Like all the previous instalments (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 ~ Volume 3 ~ Volume 4) this recital was set down in the same Cambridge venue this and Douglas uses the same Steinway piano on which he recorded Volume 4.

It’s a continuing niggle with this series that the various sets of pieces that Brahms composed, such as Op. 76 and Op. 118, are split across the various volumes. That presentation continues here and in a way it’s magnified because the first book of Paganini Variations appeared in Volume 4 but we’ve had to wait until now for Book II. Having said that, I can understand what was perhaps part of the rationale for dividing all the pieces up in this way; at least it ensures that slighter works such as the two charming Sarabandes are not relegated to a “sweep-up” disc of small pieces.

There are three sets of variations in this present recital. The second book of Paganini Variations receives a fine performance. These are succinct variations: the Theme and 14 variations play for less than 11 minutes in this performance and all but two sections last for less than one minute. Among moments that caught my ear I like the pleasing ‘give’ that Douglas imparts to the music in Variation 4 while Variation 6 has something of the ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ to it. There’s much more strength to the writing – and to the playing – in Variations 9 and 10 and I love the flowing lyricism of Variation 12. Short these individual variations may be, but Brahms is ever resourceful.

In view of my earlier quibble I’m pleased to find that both sets of Variations which together constitute Op 21 are here on the same disc. They are very different in character. Though designated No 2 in the catalogue the Variations on a Hungarian Song were the first to be composed; Nicholas Marston tells us that the piece probably originated in early 1854 If the Paganini Variations were succinct these Op 21 variations are almost terse: it takes Barry Douglas less than seven minutes to despatch the Theme, thirteen variations and a finale that accounts for over one third of the work’s duration. The variations are each so short that one can’t really single out individual sections for comment but the finale is a bravura piece that Douglas plays in a very exciting fashion.

I like the Op. 21 No. 1 Variations very much indeed. They bear a dedication “to my best friend” and since it was Clara Schumann who first performed them, in 1865, one can fairly easily deduce the dedicatee’s identity. But I think the music itself gives even more of a clue. These are not display variations. Rather, for most of the time the music speaks in a voice that is introspective and quite gentle – one might almost say feminine. Briefly the invention becomes fiery and more propulsive in Variations 8 and 9 but for the most part the tone is lyrical. The theme itself is far from straightforward and in his notes Nicholas Marston draws attention to the compositional skill with which Brahms uses motivic unity to unfold the variations in an almost seamless flow. I enjoyed Barry Douglas’s performance of these thoughtful and mainly restrained variations very much

The Scherzo predates the three Piano Sonatas. As we read in the notes, the shadow of Beethoven hovers over this piece which is cast in ABACA form. Nicolas Marston also points out signs of an affinity with Chopin but this must be unconscious since he relates that Brahms denied any knowledge of Chopin’s Scherzos at the time of writing his own piece. A successful performance of this piece requires a mixture of dynamism and delicacy on the part of the pianist if the composer’s demands are to be met. Barry Douglas is ideally equipped.

The smaller pieces all come off well. I must confess that the Hungarian Dances are not my favourite Brahms but in their two-handed version they have to be included in any complete survey of the composer’s piano music. Here three of them continue the Hungarian theme and so make suitable companions for the Op. 21 No. 2 Variations. The two that conclude the recital are, of course, two of the best known of the set.

This latest instalment in Barry Douglas’s survey is fully up to the high standards he has set so far. The piano is very well recorded by Chandos and Nicolas Marston’s notes are very helpful. Those who have been collecting the series need not hesitate.

John Quinn



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