Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
In finstrer Mitternacht
Zwei Rhapsodien, op. 79 (1879) [17:15]
Sonate No. 3, op. 5 (1853) [36:13]
Ballade op. 10, No. 1 [4:54]
Nils Anders Mortensen (piano)
rec. 9-13 May 2013, Jar Church, Brum

I’ve come across Nils Anders Mortensen as an accompanist on some nice vocal recitals with mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland on the Lawo label, including Frh with Berg, Webern and Schoenberg (review). This is not his solo debut, but careful selection and preparation of repertoire clearly stands above massive productivity for this artist.

The title for this release implies literary associations, and indeed, Andrew Smith’s booklet notes have extended poetic quotations. The line in question refers to programmatic content proposed for the second movement of the Third Sonata, “Steh ich in finstrer Mitternacht / So einsam auf der stillen wacht …” Evidence for this kinds of interpretation can be found in quotations from Lieder and other poetic sources, and there is no doubting this work’s romantic content. Mortensen doesn’t include text of his own on this or any other subject, and I’m personally more inclined to take these performances at face value.
Mortensen takes the Agitato marking of the First Rhapsody less impetuously than some at the outset, preferring to reserve his dynamics for a ‘real’ f ten bars in. This is playing with plenty of power, though the emphasis is more on the moments of beauty than on the more overtly extrovert peaks. I rather like this well considered, poetic approach, and this carries through to the Second Rhapsody in which the drama sizzles underneath rather than being pitched with fury. Mortensen gives himself plenty of places to go, rather than ending up in a constant retreat from too explosive an exposition. This is thoughtful, exploratory Brahms, and while you may not agree with each and every rubato has much to commend it.

The Third Piano Sonata as suggested previously, has its own poetic associations, and Mortensen’s playing reflects this in deeply expressive and lyrical lines, sensitively spread chords and a feeling that every corner of this piece has been weighed and examined for its own significance, as well as its importance for the flow and structure of the movement as a whole. As in a poem, atmospheres, moods and expressive inflections are recalled, each with its own variations echoing from the events that have occurred since it last appeared. Mortensen’s touch in the Andante is really rather special, and you just have to close your eyes and let the whole thing take you on its own meandering but inevitable path, picking up diamonds along the way. The Scherzo really dances, the left hand here animating and driving everything compulsively. It will have been pointed out before that the Intermezzo [pre..] the likes of Mahler, but Mortensen let the notes speak for themselves – they’re eloquent enough. The quicksilver changes of the Finale are delivered with an electric sense of anticipation, making special things out of passages where, if not played with this kind of precise expressive intent, can sound as if Brahms was running short of good ideas by this point. The quirks in this are by no means hidden, but Mortensen clearly believes in Brahms and in that the composer knew what he was doing. Adding a fine performance of the minor-key Ballade Op. 10 No. 2 to conclude the programme returns us to the dark theme of the title for this disc.

Lawo’s SACD sound is very good indeed as you might expect, and with a church acoustic which is like a warm embrace rather than a cold bath this CD already has plenty of appeal. Competition is of course fierce in Brahms’ piano works, the two Rhapsodies already comfortably established on my shelves with versions by Murray Perahia, and the more dramatic Radu Lupu. The Third Piano Sonata goes up against the likes of Jonathan Plowright, whose superb performance remains second to none in my opinion.

I have spent quite a bit of time with Nils Anders Mortensen’s recording and have come to appreciate its excellent qualities more each time I’ve returned to it. Rather than supplanting other versions, this recording informs and complements them, adding a personal, sensitively tuned and remarkably intelligent voice to the traditions around these remarkable pieces.

Dominy Clements

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