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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Theme and Variations, Op. 18b (1860) [10:14]
Ballades, Op. 10 (1854) [24:14]
Fantasies, Op. 116 (1892) [22:20]
Denis Kozhukhin (piano)
rec. March 2016, Studio 5, MCO Hilversum, Netherlands
PENTATONE PTC5186568 SACD [56:48]

Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin studied in Spain, Italy, and Germany. This fine recital of Brahms piano music consists of short pieces drawn from the beginning and end of the composer’s career.

Kozhukhin opens his program with the theme and variations which Brahms adapted from the String Sextet, op 18, and presented as a birthday gift to Clara Schumann. Kozhukhin’s interpretation is emphatic, at times rather angular, with lots of tension, heightening the music’s darker qualities. This opening track hints that this disc will be a serious one. Another clue is Kozhukhin’s earlier impressive disc of Prokofiev’s War Sonatas, which also indicates that he is not an artist pursuing frothy amusement.

The Op. 10 Ballades are equally serious. The opening Andante is subtitled “Eduard,” after a grim Scottish ballad rendered into German by Herder. Edward’s mother asks, “Why is your sword so red with blood? Edward, Edward!” Edward bitterly replies that he has killed his father, just as mommy wanted. This Ballad had a powerful hold in Nineteenth Century culture. Schubert set it in multiple versions, and Carl Loewe made it his Op. 1, no. 1. Twenty-four years using it in these Op. 10 Ballads, Brahms turned to it again, setting it this time as a duet between mother and son (Op. 75, No. 1).

The other three Ballades in this set are not linked to specific stories, although they all suggest narrative drama through strong melodies and vivid dynamic contrasts. Kozhukhin plays them a little more slowly than some (such as Katchen), but reveals more detail by doing so, especially in the final Andante con moto. Kozhukhin brings to this movement a bardic solemnity which seems a more fitting conclusion than the glimpses of gaiety which peek though at Katchen’s considerably faster tempo.

Brahms wrote seven collections of short piano pieces. The Ballades are the earliest; the other six all come from his maturity, and the Fantasies, Op. 116, are from 1892, five years before the composer’s death. The seven terse fantasies are also rather sombre music, but they present not stories, but moods. Three are called capriccios, which are all fast, and four slow pieces are all labeled intermezzo. Highlights include the opening Capriccio, which is not capricious at all, but annunciatory, proclaiming that something important is underway. No. 2, an intermezzo marked Andante, is pensive, with a rather hobbling rhythm. No. 4, an Adagio, encapsulates the bittersweet, autumnal mood that we associate with late Brahms. No. 6, Andantino teneramente is unhurried, lingering as if at an unwelcome departure. The final Capriccio, Allegro agitato makes that departure an unsettled conclusion to the set. Kozhukhin knows to leaven the melancholy with supple rhythms, and to contrast the preponderantly quiet and gentle music with episodes of real power. The recording has a beautiful sound: full, deep, and round. Quiet passages are transparent and fortissimos ring splendidly.

This is an immensely satisfying disc, raising a thirst for more Brahms from Kozhukhin. Bring on the Handel variations and the Third Piano Sonata!

Richard Kraus



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