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Johnannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Works for Solo Piano - Volume 4
Variations on a theme by Paganini in A minor, Op. 35: Book 1 [13:01]
Ballade, Op. 10 No. 1 [4:43]
Capriccio in F sharp minor, Op. 76 No. 1 [3:26]
Capriccio in B minor, Op. 76 No. 2 [3:21]
Intermezzo in A major, Op. 76 No. 6 [3:29]
Variations on a theme by Schumann in F sharp minor, Op. 9 [16:18]
Intermezzo in E minor, Op. 119 No. 2 [4:37]
Intermezzo in C sharp minor, Op. 117 No. 3 [5:19]
Piano Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 1 [28:38]
Barry Douglas (piano)
rec. 15-16 December 2014, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, UK
CHANDOS CHAN10857 [82:57]

This is Volume Four in Barry Douglas’s complete series of the solo piano music of Brahms. The first one came out in 2012 and the sixth and last will be issued in July.

Once again, the album is presented as a stand-alone recital, featuring the big half-hour long C major Sonata, and including the Schumann Variations and the first book of the Paganini Variations. These large but mainly less familiar works, about an hour’s music, would be the main reason a collector would consider obtaining this issue alone perhaps, although as each volume has been released to critical acclaim many will be collecting the series. The additional smaller works are presented as before as individual items, not grouped as published sets. At just under eighty-three minutes long, this fourth volume is a particularly generous instalment in the series. It is equally generous in keyboard skill, stylistic understanding and warmth of feeling.

The First Sonata was Brahms’s first published work (though completed after his Op.2 sonata). Its opens with a striking call-to-arms which recalls Beethoven’s Hammerklavier and Waldstein sonatas as well as Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. Its heroic qualities are especially well suited to Douglas’s direct and unfussy interpretation. These earliest piano works were those that provoked Clara Schumann’s statement that “all his things are very difficult” – and she was a leading virtuoso of the day. Barry Douglas encompasses all the challenges without appearing merely to make light of them and thus emasculate the works’ characters. Indeed his muscular playing seems just right for the strenuous aspects of the writing, its sense of struggle, but he can do justice equally to the lyrical moods that occasionally let some light into the dense texture.

The sets of variations throw up the same difficulties but add the difficulty of finding a sense of continuity through works, whose aesthetic is founded in part on swiftly changing variety. The Variations on a theme of Robert Schumann, Op.9 is still one of the least known of Brahms’s larger keyboard works, and it is hard, listening to Douglas’s performance here, to see why. The work sounds like a steady flow of different perspectives on the theme, or rather aspects of it, which gradually accumulate greater significance as they progress, the pianist especially sensitive to the later tonal excursions of this questing piece. The Paganini Variations is a different kind of work, one Brahms suggestively published as ‘Studies for Piano’, linking them to such works by Liszt and Schumann after Paganini. Thus each variation explores a distinct bit of figuration or keyboard technique. The habit in this series of breaking up single opus numbers is not ideal, but in playing here just Book One (of the two sets), Douglas avoids that sense of telling the same tale twice, which the second book, launched with a restatement of the theme, always brings. Having said that, his technical prowess is so impressive one almost wants him to carry on with Book Two!

The recording also features a selection of shorter pieces, mostly those from Brahms’s later years but also including the first of the Ballades Op.10. These are each well differentiated by Douglas, who throughout demonstrates that, as he writes in the booklet, he ‘treasures every phrase’. The searching quality, and the tenderness, in the lyrical pieces such as the C sharp minor Intermezzo, Op.117 No.3 is beautifully judged. He understands that older man’s heartsease type of emotion, the lyrical feeling of the forbidding bearded elder statesman rather than that of the young poet of the keyboard. The recording, too, serves him well, close and clear enough to let us hear those touching inner parts Douglas skilfully reveals, but with just enough ambience to let the sound breathe. This is a superb disc, equally desirable whether you are collecting the series or just wish to sample it.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: John Quinn



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