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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Complete Chamber Music Vol.9: Music for Two Pianos
Variations on a Theme by Haydn Op.56b (1873) [16:51]
Sonata for two pianos in F minor Op.34b (1864) [39:48]
Eric Le Sage, Théo Fouchenneret (pianos)
rec. 31 January 2021, Salle de concert de Piano’s Maene, Ruiselede, Belgium
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
B RECORDS LBM032 [56:39]

It is not often I start a review talking about the instrument used, but the pianos used on this illuminating disc make their presence felt from the first bar. I suspect that poor old Monsieur Maene’s amazing creations will go down in history as ‘Barenboim pianos’ and it remains to be seen if they turn out to be a bit of a nine-day wonder. I wasn’t wholly convinced by Barenboim’s own disc intended to demonstrate the capabilities of this new piano but then I am seldom much convinced by his pianism these days, greatly though I admire his conducting. This new recording seems to me a better calling card. The programme note states that Barenboim wanted a piano that could “reconcile the unique characteristic sonorous richness of the historical piano with the volume, clarity, power and playing comfort of the best modern concert pianos.”

I reviewed the album as a download which meant I was limited to hearing it in mp3 format. Even given these limitations, the recording sounds extremely well – not something that can necessarily be taken for granted with recording two pianos. The piano sound seems to have a distinctive ‘chalky’ dryness to it anyway and, even as mp3s, there is a lifelike quality to the sound.

These characteristics of the pianos used make them ideal for the task of lightening and clarifying the sometimes thick textures of this music. One obvious effect is that even at full volume, the piano never becomes excessively strident. Mostly, however, the devil is in the detail and even in a work as well known as the St Anthony Variations, my ear kept picking up little features buried in the orchestral version. I knew of this two-piano version, of course, but I don’t think I had ever heard it more than a couple of times previous to preparing this review. I expected to file this away under Enjoyable Curiosity but these two engaging French musicians confounded my expectations.

Le Sage and Fouchenneret understand the way the pulse set in the opening statement of Haydn’s theme runs through all the subsequent variations, regardless of the different tempi. The key to good Brahms, in my opinion, is the realisation that his textures are contrapuntal, not chordal. Rather than an excessively stolid Teutonic Brahms, what we get it is a more free-flowing, lighter version. If not quite a Gallic Brahms, certainly a more Viennese one. Again, the role played by the pianos can’t be ignored in aiding and abetting this approach.

Above all this version of the Variations is great fun, which is as it should be. There are darker shadows, of course, and the performers are not insensitive to them but primarily this is meant to be a life affirming work. I always imagine when listening to it that what I am hearing is the palpable relief of a composer free of the burden of having to write a symphony.

It has become habitual to decry Brahms’ piano writing. Brendel tells an amusing story about one of his children lamenting whenever he had to practice Brahms. As with many things to do with the composer, I think this is grossly unfair. Again and again listening to thus recording, I was struck by how original and idiomatic his writing for the piano is. He knows how to orchestrate, as it were, for the piano with a richness that belies the percussive nature of the instrument. A prime example is the opening of the first of the Haydn Variations – there is weight but not heaviness because everything is so beautifully poised. In the same variation Ax and Bronfman (Sony SK89868, download only) sound weary and loud. Even more surprisingly, so too do Perahia and Solti (Sony G0100012224075, with Bartók, download only). Eleonara Spina and Michele Benignetti (Brilliant Classics 94956) are much better but, perhaps conditioned by the mellower piano, the brightness of the top notes on all these recordings seems a bit garish, as if spotlit.

The second work on this recording is a rather different matter. If the Variations are taking a holiday from the symphony, the F minor Sonata for two pianos is by any reckoning a symphony manqué. Starting life as a string quintet with the Schubert lineup of two cellos, it was transformed first into this two-piano version before a final transformation into the Piano Quintet, in which form it is better known. Clara Schumann, on hearing the two-piano version, called it as the symphony it undoubtedly is. Brahms, of course, ignored her and everyone else and went his own way.

Far from being a curio, the two-piano version has attracted some big-name pianists to try their luck with it, in the studio at least. There are similarly starry named lineups for the Variations as well. As the reader can probably already tell, this record is not just about the piano. This duo can hold their heads up in even the most exalted company.

Looking at some of their rivals in the Sonata, Ax and Bronfman turn in a thoughtful, lower key but beautiful shaped account. Argerich and Zilberstein (review – now Erato 5575042, with Mendelssohn, download only) follow the performance tradition of the Piano Quintet version and really ramp up the drama. It is very exciting and full of passion but it is very loud and I confess that at times the two-piano sound left me feeling I was being yelled at during the more volatile passages.

Le Sage and Fouchenneret steer an elegant and highly satisfactory course between these extremes. By turning the flame down just a notch, they really bring out the melancholy that is such a striking feature of Ax and Bronfman. Whereas Ax and Bronfman sometimes let the fire go out a little, Le Sage and Fouchenneret are equally attentive to the drama. Such is their sensitivity to this balance that I found myself finding much more famous accounts of the Piano Quintet, including those led by Richter (Alto ALC1361, with Franck, budget price) and by Pollini (DG Originals 4748392, mid-price, no coupling), a little uncouth!

The slow movement on two pianos is a harder nut to crack and really needs the singing quality of strings to draw out its full nature. Le Sage and Fouchenneret are as good as anyone in trying to square this particular circle. To my ears, the scherzo reverses the problem and Le Sage and Fouchenneret relish the cross rhythms here in a way few of the string versions can quite manage. There is an attractive spring to the rhythm where Argerich and Zilberstein are fidgety and Ax and Bronfman somewhat flat footed. At the risk of sounding like a piano salesman, it definitely helps that Le Sage and Fouchenneret can really let rip here without the sound becoming overbearing. The loud passages sound terrific in mp3 so I can imagine that the CD sounds glorious.

This release is part of a complete Brahms chamber music project. I haven’t yet heard any of the other releases but on the basis of this recording I shall make a point of checking them out. The performance of the Sonata, in particular, is a major addition to the catalogue.

David McDade

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