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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Works for Solo Piano - Volume 6
Barry Douglas (piano)
rec. 20-21 January 2016, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge DDD
CHANDOS CHAN10903 [77:29]

And so we come to the sixth and final volume in Barry Douglas’s consistently impressive survey of the solo piano music of Brahms. Like all the previous instalments (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 ~ Volume 3 ~ Volume 4 ~ Volume 5) this recital was set down in the same Cambridge venue.

Inevitably, there’s a slight feeling of loose ends being tied up with this programme. The tiny Canon – a mere nine bars in length – is surely for completists only and I’m rather tempted to say the same about the two Bachian Gigues. However, the selection usefully gathers together a number of threads, as annotator Nicholas Marston points out. Thus, to use his terminology, we have examples of Brahms the historicist; of Brahms the pedagogue and arranger; and of Brahms the pianist

Mr Marston considers the three short works that I’ve already referred to under the ‘historicist’ tag, citing above all his reverence for Bach among composers of the past. That’s true, although one could make a plausible case for including one or two more Bach-derived works in the programme under that heading.

Under the heading of Brahms the pianist come the pieces from Opp 76 and 118 as well as the Hungarian Dances. The latter were originally conceived as four-hand works but, of course, Barry Douglas uses the two-hand versions that appeared in 1872. Here we get eight of the ten dances: the others were included in earlier volumes. Barry Douglas offers red-blooded, entertaining accounts of the Dances here. Brahms seems to suggest a cimbalom in the Poco sostenuto sections of No 4 and that comes over nicely but without exaggeration here. There’s plenty of dash in the performance of No 6 while No 8 is suitably fiery. These Dances have never been Desert Island Brahms for me, either as piano works or in their orchestral guise, but I enjoyed these performances.

I’ve commented before about the habit in this series of splitting up various collections of Brahms’s music and that happens again here. We get three pieces from Op 76 and just one from Op 118; for their companions you’ll have to look in earlier volumes. I was very interested to read a comment by Nicholas Marston. Writing of these two sets of pieces he says “there is an abiding question, whether these collections are in some sense ordered wholes which, when complete, add up to more than the sum of their parts.” I tend to agree and for the purchaser of recordings there’s also the issue of convenience. However, throughout the series Barry Douglas has challenged us to hear the pieces in a different way by splitting them up. I must say that, as a recital sequence, I like the way that he presents a contrast right at the start of the programme, following the robust ‘Rákóczy’ March, a very ‘public’ piece, with the much more private and thoughtful world of the Intermezzo in E flat minor. He does the latter beautifully, while making the March a suitably strong introduction to his recital.

The three items from Op 76 are very successful. The darkness of the C sharp minor Capriccio is well conveyed and I greatly admired the fluent and subtly shaded performance of the Intermezzo in A minor. Nicholas Marston draws our attention to the elements of continuity between that piece and the Capriccio in C major, so I’m very glad that Barry Douglas offers them in sequence and this Capriccio receives another lovely performance.

The other offerings can be grouped under the heading of Brahms the pedagogue and arranger and particularly interesting are the Studies. Actually, there are five of these Studies but we learn from the notes that the fourth is actually a different approach to the same Bach piece that Brahms arranged in Study No 3 so, not unreasonably, No 4 has been omitted here. That third study, a pretty free arrangement of the Finale of Bach’s Violin Sonata no.1, BWV1001,is a dazzling presto which, suitably adapted by Brahms, translates to the piano very well. I also liked very much Brahms’s way with Weber in Study No 2: this is freewheeling, lively music and Barry Douglas dispatches it with great dexterity. In the Chopin-based Study No 1 Brahms makes Chopin’s original challenging music even more technically demanding, it seems. The present performance has a lovely flow.

The recital closes not with an original work but with another arrangement in the form of Study No 5. This is an arrangement for left hand of Bach’s great Chaconne from the D minor violin Partita. Nicholas Marston tells us that Joseph Joachim introduced the Partita to the concert hall and Brahms was bowled over by the Chaconne. As Marston puts it, making this arrangement “perhaps allowed Brahms to experience, vicariously, the sensation of composing the piece afresh.” It’s a wonderful re-assessment of Bach’s mighty piece. In translating the music to the piano one loses the sense of stress that even great violinists can convey, when faced with the chordal demands of Bach’s writing and which is part and parcel of the tests that Bach sets. Also, there’s no doubt that the music becomes more Romantic in the Brahms version but I have no objection to either of these changes. I was riveted by Barry Douglas’s performance. Not only is his playing technically superb, but he also finds poetry in the music and conveys it expertly. In that sense this performance might serve as a microcosm of much of his series of Brahms discs. The Study is a very fine way to conclude both this particular programme and also the series as a whole.

I’ve greatly enjoyed following this Brahms series. In a note that has appeared in the booklets of all six releases, Douglas has written of his love and admiration for Brahms’s piano music. The note ends thus: “I treasure every phrase. I love every note.” I think that has come across in his performances, though without any hint of self-indulgence. He’s proved equally adept at the red-blooded, ardent music and at the reflective, poetic pieces, too. This has been a highly rewarding series and the final instalment is no exception.

As in previous instalments the Chandos recorded sound is exemplary and Nicholas Marston’s notes are valuable.

John Quinn

‘Rákóczy’ March, Anhang III No 10 [4:44]
Intermezzo in E flat minor, Op 118 No 6 [4:48]
Canon in F minor, Anhang III No 2 (1864) [0:43]
Gigue WoO4 posth 1 [2:10]
Gigue WoO4 posth 2 [2:00]
Capriccio in C sharp minor, Op 76 No 5 [3:09]
Intermezzo in A minor, Op 76 No 7 [2:47]
Capriccio in C major, Op 76 No 8 [3:45]
Gavotte by Chr. W. Gluck in A major, Anhang Ia, No 2 (from Act II, Scene 3 of Iphigénie en Aulide) [4:02]
Study No 1. Étude after Fr. Chopin in F minor (Etudes, op.25/2), Anhang Ia, No 1 [3:00]
Study No 2. Rondo after C.M. von Weber in C major (Piano Sonata no.1, op.24: Finale), Anhang Ia, No 1 [4:58]
Study No 3. Presto after J. S. Bach in G minor (Violin Sonata no.1, BWV1001: Finale), Anhang Ia, No 1[3:29]
Hungarian Dance, WoO1, No.2 in D minor [3:13]
Hungarian Dance, WoO1, no.4 in F sharp minor [4:48]
Hungarian Dance, WoO1, No.6 in D flat major [3:07]
Hungarian Dance, WoO1, No.7 in F major [1:41]
Hungarian Dance, WoO1, No.8 in A minor [2:47]
Hungarian Dance, WoO1, No.9 in E minor [2:06]
Hungarian Dance, WoO1, No.10 in F major [2:04]
Study No 5. Chaconne by J. S. Bach in D minor (Partita No.2, BWV 1004), Anhang Ia, No 1[16:49]



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