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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Seven Fantasies Op.116 (1892) [22:25]
Two Rhapsodies Op.79 (1879) [15:42]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kreisleriana Op.16 (1838) [36:09]
Elena Fischer-Dieskau (piano)
rec. 2020, Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

Remarking that I am captivated is as good a start as any to this review. I actually listened to Kreisleriana first and it wasn't very long before I was hooked; coming to the Brahms items the following day did nothing to alter that. Elena Fischer-Dieskau's playing has drama and passion, drive and sensitivity in equal measure and though her technical equipment is impeccable it is curiously enough the second more reflective pieces of both the Brahms' Fantasies and Kreisleriana that drew me firmly into her world. I can almost hear a voice singing in the second intermezzo of op.116 so vocally and simply does she present the opening bars and the notes of the non troppo presto that follow have a sense of utter weightlessness that is delicious. This is echoed in the wonderful legato octaves in Kreisleriana's second number sehr innig (innig given as interiority in the excellent booklet essay by Laura Tunbridge) and it is this internal world that Fischer-Dieskau expresses so eloquently in all of this playing without resorting to mannerered or sentimental playing.

Brahms' Fantasies op.116 were his return to piano writing after a 12 year gap although technically he began his return in 1891 in grand fashion with the second Piano concerto. This group comprises seven capriccios and intermezzos, the former generally faster whilst the intermezzi are more reflective. Fischer-Dieskau brings depth and rigour to the big-boned opening capriccio; her phrased staccato in the middle section is beautifully judged. There is a sense of timelessness in the fourth intermezzo and the pianissimo playing toward the end is very impressive – indeed her pianissimo playing is miraculous throughout this recital from its first appearance in bar 9 of the A minor intermezzo, a real held breath moment. Voice balancing is also very fine, as can be heard in the E major intermezzo, stately but dance-like in its fluidity. The allegro agitato that closes the set brings together restless virtuosity and song-like tenderness and in the central section its syncopations are disguised by the marvellous phrasing of the intertwined melody.

Subtitled Fantasy pieces for the piano, Schumann's Kreisleriana shares the contrasting nature of the intermezzo/capriccio, reflective/spirited elements found in Brahms' Fantasies. His inspiration was the fictional quixotic musician Johannes Kreisler, who featured in three books by E.T.A Hoffmann. Schumann was drawn to this character, this eccentric, wild, inspired Kapellmeister as he described him and Kreisleriana appears to have been one of his favourite pieces among his works. The turbulent triplet-laden opening is immediately striking and Fischer-Dieskau relishes the drama of this as much as the tenderness in the rippling central section. I have already noted her touch in the second movement, the most extended of the set by a good deal. In this there are two faster contrasting interludes interrupting the inward looking outer sections; the first is a short bustling scherzo whilst the second is more yearning, its melody swathed in arpeggios and set against a bass line that lingers over the beat, a dislocation and suspension of harmony that is found throughout the set. She cleverly paces the excitement of the third piece, maintaining its breathlessnss until it finally breaks at the noch schneller (even faster). The recitative style outer sections of the fourth number pay homage to Bach and Beethoven, passions that Schumann shared with his fictional counterpart. Again I find myself rapt by its focused intensity and the beauty of the brief song without words at its heart. Movement seven's blistering rage echoes the final Capriccio of the Brahms and is just as effective in Fischer-Dieskau's hands, a fiery and driven white-knuckle ride. The final movement is one of my favourites; an impish scherzo, the nervous element only exacerbated by the bass line finding itself further from the beat as the piece goes on. A hunting song interrupts proceedings briefly but the skittish opening returns as soon as the hunt is past and the piece fades into nothingness.

Elena Fischer-Dieskau ends with more Brahms, the two Rhapsodies op.79. Brahms was persuaded to change the title to Rhapsody by their dedicatee Elisabeth von Herzogenberg who considered the original Klavierstuck (piano piece) too generic. They are not Rhapsodic in the usual sense of the word as Brahms admitted but he also suggested that names of pieces were losing their set characteristics so this was as good a title as any. The first in B minor has a declamatory and restless quality in the interplay between the hands and in its chromatic shifts of harmony. Fischer-Dieskau brings a wonderful bell-like feel to the beautiful major key central section as she does in the quieter moments of the equally restless G minor rhapsodie but she is not only about the quieter music and she ably demonstrates what a kaleidoscopic palette of colour and emotional drama she has at her disposal. She is aided by Delphian's gloriously rich sound.

This is easily some of the best playing I have heard in recent listening and I can't imagine there will be much to knock it off my best of the year list.

Rob Challinor

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