Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Complete Works for Piano - Volume 3
Variations on a Hungarian Melody, Op. 21 No. 2 (1853) [7:47]
Piano Pieces, Op. 76 (1878) [27:36]
Waltzes, Op. 39 (1865) [20:10]
Piano Pieces, Op. 118 (1892) [24:40]
Jonathan Plowright (piano)
rec. January 2015, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, England.
BIS BIS-2127 SACD [81:19]

Just as our soloist appears on the cover for this release, this is a recording to make you smile. The Variations on a Hungarian Melody is a relatively light collection, though with some lovely moments in which Jonathan Plowright’s limpid touch can take effect. The eighth variation, Ancora in poco pił lento. Espressivo, dolce and the subsequent Dolce variations are cases in point. The build-up to the final Allegro, by far the longest in a set of variations in which most last but a few seconds, elaborates on what has gone before, the whole pushing virtuoso boundaries with a generally “brazen and assertive” mood.

The Piano Pieces Op. 76 are an altogether different and more substantial prospect, though while there are tragic minor-key pieces the whole impression is life-enhancing and, to my ears at least, optimistic. Plowright doesn’t over-jollify pieces such as the bouncy Capriccio in B minor, but always keeps the bitter-sweet tensions in balance. Bryce Morrison’s booklet notes point towards the “unease … nostalgia and regret” inherent in these pieces' reflection of Brahms’ “increasingly introverted nature”. Even so, inner strength of character and uplifting qualities always shine through, and favourites such as the Intermezzo in A major sing with vibrant depth in this performance.

The Waltzes Op. 39 are through-and-through Brahms, despite being a somewhat unexpected part of his oeuvre. Full piano textures in a single-player version of pieces that were originally conceived for piano duet, the technical demands are by no means to be sniffed at despite their apparent appeal to ‘the gifted amateur pianist’. Contrasting moods of extrovert syncopation and stillness make these very worthwhile indeed, and Plowright quite rightly plays them as concert pieces as well as giving them the feeling of music to which dances might be choreographed. The booklet notes sum them up as “magical and underestimated”, and this recording should go far towards any rehabilitation that might be required.

The Piano Pieces Op. 118 belong in the top echelon of Brahms’ output for piano, filled as they are with forward-looking expression and rich as they are in the composer’s ever-restless explorations of technical variation. Plowright’s playing is responsive to every colour and change in the scores, and to my ears these performances are satisfying in every way. There comes a point at which comparisons become of interest, but with so many alternatives and classic recordings it becomes tricky to know where to start. You may have found yourself wondering whether to go with Plowright on BIS or Barry Douglas in his Brahms programmes for Chandos, so I’ve taken his recordings as a reference.

Douglas has formed his recordings into recitals that break up opus numbers, so Op. 118 numbers 1 and 4 can be found on his vol. 5, CHAN10878 (review). Recorded in a richer acoustic ambience Douglas is the equal of Plowright in many regards, though takes for instance a broader, more lyrical view of Op. 118 No. 4 where Plowright heightens the contrasts with that magical central section by taking the outer passages with a touch more drama and turbulence. Op 76 Nos. 3 and 4 can also be found on this volume and it’s swings and roundabouts with No. 3, this time with Plowright taking the broader view and Douglas shaving around 30 seconds off in a more miniaturist flight of fancy. With No. 4 Douglas is more four-square than Plowright, who manages to inject just the right amount of Schumann-esque sparkle into those running accompaniment notes. Just on these few examples I would tend to follow Plowright though Douglas is very fine indeed. It may only be the chopping up of significant repertoire that puts you off more, or perhaps BIS’s SACD sonics. Either way, both pianists show that there is still much to be discovered and relished in Brahms’ sublime piano music, and I endorse Jonathan Plowright’s latest edition wholeheartedly (reviews of Volume 1 and Volume 2).

Dominy Clements

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