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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Genius of Young Brahms
Craig Sheppard (piano)
rec. live, 2010 – 2011, Katharyn Alvord Gerlich Theater, Meany Center for the Performing Arts, University of Washington, Seattle, USA
Digital-only release
ROMÉO RECORDS 7334/6 [3 CDs: 209:12]

In 2018 I greatly enjoyed a disc of live recordings by Craig Sheppard of Brahms’ late piano pieces, Opp 116-119. Now, for his latest release, Sheppard goes to the other end of Brahms’ composing career for a collection of the composer’s earlier piano works. Like the performances on the other disc, these were set down during a series of recitals in Seattle, given between 2010 and 2013, which had the collective title Mostly Brahms; I understand some music by Schumann also featured.

This is a digital-only release, available for download or streaming via a wide range of platforms, I understand. I was provided with a set of CDs for review purposes. For the purposes of this review I’ve decided to comment on the works and performances not according to the order in which they are presented on these discs but in the order in which they appeared in the series of recitals.

The earliest performances collected here come from a recital in November 2010 in which Sheppard included two works with strong links to Robert Schumann and it’s fitting that the three-disc set opens with the Variations on a theme by Robert Schumann, Op 9. Brahms composed this set of variations after Schumann had been hospitalised following his attempted suicide. As Craig Sheppard points out in his notes, Brahms’ choice of theme was significant. He selected a theme from Schumann’s Bunte Blätter, Op 99, the self-same theme on which Clara Schumann had only recently composed a set of variations. It’s a solemn theme and it proves itself well-suited to variation.

Brahms’ variations are inventive and I like the way that Sheppard leads the listener on seamlessly through the sixteen concise variants. One of his great skills is that of applying very natural rubato. That was evident to me within the first couple of minutes of the performance and it’s a hallmark of his playing throughout these three CDs. I appreciated the energy that Sheppard brings to Variations V and VI, his expressiveness in Variation X, and his lightness of touch in Variations XII and XIII. He plays the penultimate variation with fine feeling, after which the variation with which Brahms concludes his thoughtful tribute to his mentor, achieves a sense of completeness in Sheppard’s hands.

The First Piano Sonata in C major was a very appropriate partner for the Schumann Variations in that November 2010 recital because it was by playing this work to them that Brahms announced himself to Robert and Clara when he first visited them on 30 September 1853. The impact of this work was a direct stimulus to Robert’s celebrated ‘Neue Bahnen’ article, published shortly thereafter in his journal Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik; that in turn aroused the interest of Breitkopf und Härtel who swiftly published the sonata. What an astonishing debut work it is, written by a young man who at the time of its composition was not yet twenty years old.

The opening motif of the first movement recalls, by accident or design, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. I was impressed by the way that Craig Sheppard conveys the grandeur and confidence of the music; he’s just as successful in the calmer stretches which provide good contrast. Brahms’ material is well organised throughout this movement and Sheppard is an excellent guide to the music. The slow movement is an Andante. It’s a set of variations – six, I think – on an old German minnelied. Brahms would go on to write more inventive sets of variations later in his career but these are pleasing variations. Sheppard plays them very well and I especially liked his ideally controlled weighting in the closing bars. The Scherzo, which follows attacca, receives the sort of athletic, dynamic performance it demands. Sheppard judges very well the degree of relaxation in the lyrical Trio – and he brings the necessary strength to the brief climax. The Allegro con fuoco finale takes up where the Scherzo left off. Much of the movement is barnstorming in nature, though the second group brings welcome relaxation. There’s great rhythmic dynamism in the movement and here we experience for the first time what was to become a Brahms trademark: his readiness to be unconventional or unexpected in the way he handles rhythm for expressive purposes. Sheppard gives a bravura performance to round off his fine performance of Brahms’ Op 1.

From the second Mostly Brahms recital, given in February 2011, come the eight Klavierstücke, Op 76 and the Second Sonata. The Klavierstücke may be short pieces but they’re fine ones. No 1 is a Capriccio. The restless quality, even when the music appears to relax a bit, comes across well in Sheppard’s hands. I like very much the light-fingered wit that he brings to No 2 in a nicely pointed performance of this Capriccio. No 5, also entitled Capriccio, is marked Agitato, ma non troppo presto, and it seems to me that Sheppard achieves the balance implied in this marking. Yes, he does make the music agitated but he doesn’t press forward excessively in order to achieve this. In his excellent performance he also relaxes ideally in the passages marked tranquillo. In his notes, Craig Sheppard likens the following Intermezzo (No 6) to “an intimate dialogue between two friends”. There’s admirable give and take in his performance so that the listener does indeed have the impression of eavesdropping on a conversation. The last piece in the set is another Capriccio and here Sheppard brings out all the positivity in this extrovert miniature. I greatly enjoyed these performances.

Though designated as Op 2, the F sharp minor Sonata was composed in 1852, before the C major Sonata. Craig Sheppard believes that Breitkopf und Härtel felt more confident in publishing the C major sonata, in 1853, as the first piece from an unknown young composer to be put before the public. Given confidence, I presume, by the reaction to Op 1, the Leipzig publishing house put the F sharp minor sonata into print later in that same year. As I listened to Sheppard’s account of the big first movement, I felt that perhaps I could understand why the publishers opted to issue the C major Sonata first; the opening salvos of the F sharp minor work are, if anything, bolder than Brahms’ writing in what became Op 1. Uniquely among the three sonatas, this is the only one which doesn’t have an exposition repeat, but so great is the energy and sense of the music sweeping all before it that, arguably, one doesn’t need a repeat; indeed, a repeat might, in a sense, get in the way. Brahms doesn’t truly relax during this movement; it’s a continuous stream of bravura writing. Craig Sheppard projects the music powerfully and passionately.

As with the C major Sonata, Brahms writes a set of variations on a minnelied for his slow movement. However, this is a much more restless composition than the comparable movement in Op 1. Sheppard’s reading is powerful. He offers dynamism in the Scherzo. In his notes, he makes an interesting observation about the Trio section, that it “surely recalls melodies sung in the beer halls of the day”. I must confess that this connection had not previously occurred to me, but as I listened it seemed to me that the comparison is well made. The revisitation – not a straight repeat – of the Scherzo is very turbulent, as befits the music. The finale is an innovative composition, which starts with a slow introduction in which a rhetorical tone is struck. The main body of the movement, marked Allegro non troppo e rubato, starts simply enough but gradually builds in complexity and power. In this movement Brahms does something that he eschewed in the first movement: he supplies an exposition repeat, and it’s a substantial one. As the movement unfolds you have a real sense of the young Brahms flexing his compositional muscles. Just before the end he springs a surprise with a quasi-cadenza passage; it’s a daring touch. Craig Sheppard gives a virtuoso performance of this movement and it’s no surprise that the audience greets the end with an enthusiastic ovation.

The third of these recitals, given in April 2011, included the Third Sonata and the two sets of Variations that comprise Op 21. Variations on an Original Theme, Op 21/1 dates from 1857 and has 11 variations. Craig Sheppard rightly describes the theme as stately and goes on to speculate that it “might have sprung from Brahms’ deep connection with the choral tradition of northern Germany”. The construction of the set follows a pattern: the theme itself and all the variations, save for the last one, are concise and fall into two sections, each of which is repeated. It seems to me that Brahms warms to his task as one variation succeeds another and I have the impression that each variation moves a bit further away from the theme while never losing sight of it. Sheppard gives a very fine performance and, like the work itself, his reading reaches its peak in the more extended Variation XI. Here, Brahms pulls out all the stops and subjects the theme to the most thorough examination of its possibilities.

Variations on a Hungarian Song, though designated No 2 in Op 21, was the first of the two sets to be composed: the notes date the work from 1854 though, oddly, the Peters Edition score indicates 1855. This work is a very different proposition to Op 21/1. It’s a much more extrovert work than its rather introspective companion and the theme is a much jollier one. There are thirteen variations. All of these are concise – and this time there are no repeats – with the exception of the concluding Variation XIII, which is much more extended than the rest. The last couple of variations in particular call for virtuosity from the pianist. I enjoyed Craig Sheppard’s traversal of this work.

The set of Sixteen Waltzes, Op 39 also come from this concert and give us an opportunity to experience the lighter side of Brahms. Originally written for four hands, they work perfectly well when a single pianist plays them. These waltzes represent Brahms at his most entertaining and engaging; the mask of seriousness, so frequently worn, slips to one side. The individual pieces are very short, mostly playing for just over one minute, but there’s a great variety between them and Craig Sheppard differentiates nicely. So, for example, he conveys the gaiety of No 1 and then immediately is just as winning in the easeful No 2; here, his excellent feel for rubato is well to the fore. I much enjoyed his lightly tripping playing of No 6; this one is so rhythmically tricky – you try dancing to it! No 9 has charming hesitations built into the writing and is deliciously done here. The ebullience of No 13 is well conveyed and Sheppard is dashing in No 14. By contrast, the famous lullaby (No 15) is soothingly played. Amid so much else in this set of discs that wears a serious countenance, Sheppard’s engaging account of these waltzes offers welcome contrast.

I suspect that it was with the Third Sonata that Craig Sheppard rounded off his April 2011 recital. It has never ceased to astonish me that Brahms composed all three of his piano sonatas within the space of a couple of years and then never returned to the form. Perhaps as he acquired mastery in other areas, such as his handling of symphonic form and writing for the orchestra, he felt no need to do so. It’s a pity, though; one can only speculate as to the type of sonatas he might have composed at the height of his powers. The Third Sonata is a notable achievement and a good way to close the book, as it were, on that particular aspect of Brahms’ compositional career. Unusually, he cast it in five movements, two of them slow.

The opening Allegro maestoso begins in assertive fashion. I like the way Craig Sheppard makes the most of Brahms’ dynamic contrasts during the exposition. He’s suitably sensitive during the more reflective passages of music but the prevailing impression with which I’m left is one of strength – and that’s in accordance with the music itself. The Andante offers much-needed repose and I think Sheppard’s playing brings just the right degree of tranquillity to the music. The Scherzo is dynamic, as it needs to be, while the playing of the Trio is delectably poised. There follows an Intermezzo which has the subtitle ‘Rückblick’ (looking back). The seriousness of this music is underlined by the persistent use of an ominous three-note figure in the bass which is in the same rhythm as the ‘Fate’ motif in Beethoven’s Fifth symphony. The present reading is very successful indeed, achieving just the right degree of intensity, and Craig Sheppard ensures that the brief climax is boldly dramatic. He gives a commanding account of the finale which earns him an enthusiastic ovation, quickly faded out, from the audience. This is a very impressive traversal of the Third Sonata

The final recital represented on these discs took place in April 2012 and included the masterly Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op 24. Craig Sheppard’s comments in the booklet reveal his bubbling enthusiasm for this set of twenty-five variations followed by a fugue. He writes that he sees the work “essentially as a disparate group of dances, some Baroque in character, some more contemporary (think, Hungarian!), with a good deal of the North German choral tradition thrown in for balance and Baroque-infused counterpoint abounding.” That enthusiasm for the work is readily apparent in Sheppard’s performance. He invests the opening Aria with light Baroque grace; then with a hop, skip and a jump (Variation I, wittily played) we’re off on Brahms’ exploration of his chosen theme. There’s a huge amount to admire in the performance that follows. Variation III comes across as a courtly little dance while Variation IV fairly storms out of the blocks. Sheppard judges ideally the weight and grandeur of Variation IX. I referred earlier to his beautifully-judged use of rubato; further evidence is provided in Variations XI and XII. By contrast, there’s dash and energy in Variations XIV and XV. I relished the jaunty delivery of Variation XX. Brahms rounds things off with a prodigious fugue. Sheppard plays this demanding music with great clarity and fine dynamic contrasts. As the fugue develops, he generates no little excitement and the end is as tumultuous as Brahms surely intended. At the end, the Seattle audience erupts into a reception that is as vociferous as it was richly deserved.

All the performances collected here were given on Craig Sheppard’s own Hamburg Steinway Model D. The engineer was Dmitry Lipay, who regularly engineers Sheppard’s recordings. He’s done his usual very good job, presenting the sound of the Steinway truthfully and pleasingly. Except on the occasions when applause was retained the audiences are scrupulously quiet.

Craig Sheppard has written the booklet notes, as is his wont; these are succinct and perceptive and it’s great to have the performer’s perspective. The documentation I received with my press CDs wasn’t ideal, though the electronic version may be different. There was no information about when and where the recordings were made, nor was there a detailed track listing, including timings.

These three CDs contain a collection of consistently fine, well-considered and authoritative Brahms performances. The set is a very welcome companion to Craig Sheppard’s earlier set of the late piano works, Opp 116-119, referenced earlier. There remain one or two significant piano works which have not been covered: the Ballades, Op10, the Rhapsodies Op 79, and the two books of Paganini Variations, Op 35. It may well be that these were not included in the Mostly Brahms recitals but if they were, I hope it may be possible to issue them on CD before long. It’s encouraging to read in Craig Sheppard’s booklet essay that some unspecified works by Robert Schumann formed part of the Mostly Brahms series and that we can expect these to come out on CD in due course. For now, though, the present, very rewarding performances should give great pleasure.

John Quinn
CD 1
Variations on a theme by Robert Schumann, Op 9 (1854)
rec. 1 November 2010
Variations on an Original Theme, Op 21/1 (1857)
rec. 25 April 2011
Variations on a Hungarian Song, Op 21/2 (1854)
rec. 25 April 2011
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op 24 (1861)
rec. 20 April 2012
CD 2
Sonata No 1 in C major, Op 1 (1853)
rec.1 November 2010
Sonata No 3 in F, Op 5 (1853-54)
rec. 25 April 2011
CD 3
Sixteen Waltzes, Op 39 (1865)
rec. 25 April 2011
Eight Piano Pieces, Op 76 (1871-78)
rec. 9 February 2011
Sonata No 2 in F sharp minor, Op 2 (1852)
rec. 9 February 2011

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