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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Seven Fantasias Op. 116 [20:47]
Three Intermezzos Op. 117 [13:39]
Six Piano Pieces Op. 118 [20:43]
Four Piano Pieces Op. 119 [13:52]
Stephen Hough (piano)
rec. 2014/18, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London; St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol
HYPERION CDA68116 [69:08]

These four last published sets of Brahms’s piano music come from 1892-3 and consist of short (two to five minutes) pieces, all in ABA form, with various titles suggesting lighter or more playful music, such as capriccio or intermezzo. “The final piano pieces of Brahms, twenty gems, are salon music taken to the nth degree” writes Hough in a short booklet note. Another characterisation might be that they are mighty miniatures, saying much that is profound and searching but in a brief span; ‘big’ works reduced to the smallest scale. That at least seems to be the way Hough plays them. The pianist has given us fine Brahms before on Hyperion, with some early solo piano music and the two piano concertos. This new disc is in the same class, and one can only join the chorus of praise that has greeted its release.

The disc begins commandingly, as Hough launches into Op.116/1 with some vigour. It is marked Presto energico, but some pianists see an unwritten maestoso. Wilhelm Kempff, a pupil of Brahms’s close friend Robert Kahn, favours this broader majestic approach, but Hough’s arresting call to arms makes a fine start. He can play majestically too of course, as in the middle of Op.116/3, phrased with fine nobility. In Op.117/1 he does not indulge the resemblance to Brahms’s famous Wiegenlied (cradle song) but restrains the lullaby feeling with a properly flowing tempo. Its successor Op.117/2 has the tonal ambiguity found in many of these late pieces, and Hough exploits that and the opening melodic chain of slurred couplets to hint at a mood of loss and regret. But here and elsewhere the effect is a subtle and elusive one, born of some exquisite pianism, not least in relation to keyboard colour.

Op.118/2 is the longest piece here (with Op.117/2, also 5:20), and Hough makes it a miniature tone poem of controlled passion, especially in the middle section (from 2:00 on) which glows quietly at first, then rises in emotional temperature, which the pianist judges perfectly. The third of the Op.118 set has all the rhythmic verve it requires, and Hough is especially expert in many of these works at elucidating Brahms’s characteristic metrical trickiness, such as in Op.118/4. The fifth item in Op.118, in F major, is alone in being entitled Romance, and Hough subtly sketches its romantic feeling with such technical details as the variety of trills he has at his command. But subtlety is not all - the ensuing Op.118/6 is very powerful and direct in its drama and rhetoric, especially in the crescendo of its middle section.

In Op.119/3 we have the shortest piece of all, and one with few shadows to darken its C major tonality. Hough captures the Grazioso e giocoso mood, although that marking is not as straightforward as it seems – “graceful and playful”? Kempff, and Curzon (interred in a recording between his accounts of big sonatas by Brahms and Schubert), are exceptional here, both quite swift, dancing beneath an unclouded sky. But Hough gets close to that benchmark, and as ever, adds insights of his own. The final piece is a Rhapsody (Op.119/4), although no more rhapsodic than others, and like many of them is a drama of contrasts, and Hough makes the most of them. Perhaps at times the stormier passages in some pieces like this final one are a touch pugilistic, the Yamaha becoming slightly clangourous in the loudest moments. But this all adds to a sense that for all the compactness of these works, big issues are at stake in them.

Hyperion’s production values are as high as ever, with a good booklet note, and attractive and apposite cover art. There are many fine versions of these pieces, but not so many that have all four publications together on one issue, an arrangement that makes a lot of musical sense. So restricting comparisons to discs with Op.116-119 entire, then in the last millennium we had Kempff, in mono in the 1950’s for Decca (there is a reissue on Eloquence), and in the 1960’s on DGG in stereo. They have a feeling of authenticity, of connection to the source. This millennium Nicholas Angelich on Virgin and especially Stefan Vladar on Harmonia Mundi (a BBC “Building a Library” winner in 2009) have most often made the journey from my shelves to the CD player (after Kempff, that is). But for excellent sound and an uncanny ability to find the essence of every piece here, Hough is now the top modern recommendation.

Roy Westbrook
Previous review: John Quinn

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