Leon McCawley’s beautifully recorded Brahms recital strikes exactly the right balance between the monumental, intimate and light-hearted aspects of the composer’s piano output. He is especially adept at characterising the sequence of Op. 39 Waltzes, extracting the maximum degree of variety from these deliberately unpretentious miniatures. Among his strengths is the way he imaginatively draws out different nuances the second time the material is heard.
It’s a tactic that McCawley also employs to great advantage in the Handel Variations where he approaches the score with a notable lightness of touch: textures and finger articulation are crystal-clear throughout. At times a weightier sonority is required – in Variation No. 13, for example, where the low bass arpeggios of the left hand evoke a funeral tread against the right hand’s Hungarian lament. These elements seem understated in McCawley’s performance, whereas Murray Perahia, on his acclaimed Sony release, achieves more gravitas and emotional pathos. Similar issues arise in the concluding Fugue where, despite his wonderful control of voicing, McCawley doesn’t quite build up enough tension. You need to turn to Perahia’s recording to appreciate the awesome climax that Brahms creates.
In the Op. 118 set, McCawley delivers absolutely magical performances of the fourth and sixth Intermezzos. On the other hand, the second Intermezzo strikes me as being a little too restless given Brahms’s marking Andante teneramente. Once again, Perahia, adopting a similar tempo to McCawley, achieves greater calm while still controlling the ebb and flow of the melodic line to impressive effect.