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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op 23 (1861) [15:45]
Sechs Klavierstücke, Op 118 - II. Intermezzo (1893) [6:03]
Yi Lin Jiang (intermezzo), Jacopo Giovannini (piano four hands)
rec. 21 September 2020, Kronenzentrum Bietigheim, Germany.
ANCLEF 20201031 [21:47]

This EP release is the first from the fledgeling ANCLEF label, set up by Yi Lin Jiang as “a safe harbour for individual musicians who are willing to swim against the stream if needed.” The CD comes with a nicely documented booklet, but I imagine this recording is aimed more at the download market given the playing time.

These rising young stars play with sublime musicianship and the recording has been beautifully produced. Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op 23 takes its theme from the slow movement of Schumann’s Violin Concerto, and the music that haunted his memory after his suicide attempt in 1854, integrating it into the ‘Ghost Variations’ which was to be his last solo work. Op 23 is steeped in memories of Robert, the title of this album ‘Philia’ standing for the ancient philosophy of brotherly love. Brahms’ affection for Clara Schumann is also integrated into the work, and with a dedication to Julie Schumann, the couple’s third-eldest daughter, the intention to create something for the mother and daughter to play in memory of Robert is clear.

This is not the most widely recorded of Brahms’s works, but by way of comparison I’ve listened to András Schiff and Sir Georg Solti on Decca Eloquence (review). This is a fair performance, but has some loose threads here and there, and is by no means as tidy with regard to ensemble as Giovanni and Jiang. One of the reasons might be that it has been recorded on two pianos rather than quatre-mains, and the left-right effect is a bit lugubrious. The Decca release has the advantage of track access points for each variation, but these are absent from the ANCLEF production, a feature shared in a version I came across on the Orion label (LAN0331) played by Sharon Gunderson and Jo Ann Smith. This is a CD that has long vanished from the catalogue, but with a woolly sound and somewhat heavy playing it is in any case no real competitor. Easier to find as a download is a version on Warner Classics or Erato played by Claire Désert and Emmanuel Strosse. This is fine playing, but seeks to pick out expressive detail with more dynamic rise and fall and rubato than Giovannini and Jiang, who are elegant in their contrast between variations but hold onto a more reliable sense of pulse and forward momentum within each one. I prefer the lack of fuss and pretension in the latter by some margin.

Brahms’s Intermezzo, Op 118 No 2 is added as a filler for its secret dedication to Clara Schumann, and is a piece that pianist Yi Lin Jiang has clearly thought long and deeply about. His is a lovely performance, with gorgeous sonority and just the right kind of colour contrasts and shaping in the melodic phrases. This recording is very fine in every regard, and we are told that there is an upcoming album IV-XXI which I anticipate with enthusiasm.

Dominy Clements

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