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Brahms The Progressive
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sechs Klavierstücke, op. 118 (1892-93) [22.35]
Vier Klavierstücke, op. 119 (c. 1893) [14.27]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Piano Sonata, op. 1 (1909), pub. 1910) [11.01]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Kinderstück (1924) [2.11]
Satz für Klavier (1906) [6.24]
Klavierstück - Im Tempo eines Menuetts (1925) [1.33]
Variations, op. 27 (1935/36) [5.43]
Pina Napolitano (piano)
rec. 2017, Studio Odradek, The Spheres, Pescara-Montesilvano, Italy
ODRADEK ODRCD330 [64.13]

With this solo piano recital Pina Napolitano essentially explores examples spanning a forty-year period of the musical advances taking place broadly centered on fin-de-siècle Vienna. The title of the album ‘Brahms The Progressive’ refers to Arnold Schoenberg’s 1933 essay where he wanted to demonstrate how his own radical style was modelled by the progressivity of Brahms within a traditional structure.

This golden period of great change in the arts, with fin-de-siècle Vienna at its heart, encompasses the great late works of Bruckner, Brahms and Mahler plus the increasing influence of the Second Viennese School principally Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, who were all rooted in established late-Romantic traditions. The richly textured late-Romantic music of Brahms, compared to Webern’s radical compositions of the Second Viennese School, so lean and economic in scale, seem to inhabit entirely different worlds with the Berg Sonata stylistically lying somewhere in between.

An experienced performer of Brahms and the Second Viennese School, Pina Napolitano has also commissioned a chamber ensemble adaptation of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto, Op. 42. Napolitano has already recorded the complete solo piano music of the influential Schoenberg on Odradek.

Contained here are Brahms’ two sets of Klavierstücke, opp. 118 and 119. Completed in 1893, these are late works rich in melody and emotional depth, introspective and intensely personal in disposition. Both sets were premiered early in 1894 in London, by Ilona Eibenschütz. In my view the No. 2 Intermezzo marked Andante teneramente from the opus 118 set is one of Brahms’ most sublime creations. In the two Brahms sets Napolitano’s approach has a rather steely reserve which took some time to absorb after normally hearing the refined ‘classic’ recordings from Radu Lupu/Decca and Dmitri Alexeev/EMI who blend more intensity, tenderness and colour which the music certainly benefits from.

Berg is represented by his Piano Sonata, op. 1, an early work from 1909 during his time studying with Schoenberg. The Sonata received its premiere in 1911, given by Etta Werndorff. Before he had fully embraced atonality, here the expressionist Berg is using non-traditional harmony within a tonal framework. The earliest Webern work here is Satz für Klavier from 1906 which wasn’t premiered until 1958 when Else Stock-Hug, using a manuscript copy of the missing score, performed the work in Vienna. In 1965 Webern’s autograph sketches were discovered. At the time of writing Satz Webern was also studying with Schoenberg and although employing a traditional Sonata-Allegro scheme the work pushes the boundaries of tonality. With the oscillating tonal and post-tonal aspects of the Berg Sonata and Webern’s Satz Napolitano’s focused playing is suitably impressive, displaying both clarity and intelligence.

Webern’s short Kinderstück from 1924 had to wait until 1966 for its premiere, given in New York by Caren Glasser. Like a child’s lullaby viewed through an atonal prism here Webern embraces his primary experimentation with the twelve-tone technique. Written in 1925 the very brief Klavierstück - Im Tempo eines Menuetts was introduced the next year in Vienna by Iván Eröd. With Klavierstücke, Webern continued his early employment of the twelve-tone technique. From just over a decade later the Variations for piano, op. 27 in three movements are atonal, twelve-tone pieces typical of his late style. It was pianist Peter Stadlen who premiered the score in 1937 in Vienna. Totally at home in the cool austerity of Webern’s sound world, Napolitano, with discipline and considerable concentration, produces an elevated level of precision with a stark beauty. By comparison however I have Maurizio Pollini’s 1976 Herkulessaal, Munich account released on Deutsche Grammophon and on balance I generally favour his wider use of dynamic.

Closely recorded at Studio Odradek in Pescara-Montesilvano, the sound quality is generally well focused with a cool clarity, except for several of the forte passages, particularly noticeable in track 2 when the sound blurs at the edges. Curiously, track 13 has some unwanted background noise between points 1.57-2.25. With a playing time of under sixty-five minutes it’s a missed opportunity to add another work by Brahms say Drei Intermezzi, Op. 117 or maybe some more Berg.

This is a fascinating programme of solo piano music by Brahms, Berg and Webern from Pina Napolitano which despite a couple of caveats is worthy of attention.

Michael Cookson

I also have this disc for review. On my assessment, the sound is impeccably clean throughout, and is among the very best piano recording I've heard.  Michael's comment about 'unwanted background noise' on track 13 is during a particularly angular passage and is almost certainly just vigorous pedaling (confirmed by my pianist daughter).
Des Hutchinson


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