Brahms

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Piano Sonata No. 1; Intermezzo, Op. 117 No. 3; Intermezzo, Op. 119 No. 2; Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 9; Capriccio, Op. 76 Nos 1 & 2; Intermezzo, Op. 76 No. 6; Ballade ‘Edward’, Op. 10 No. 1; Variations on a Theme by Niccolò Paganini, Op. 35 Book 1
PERFORMER: Barry Douglas (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10857

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When Artur Schnabel dubbed Brahms ‘the first Impressionist’ (while selling Liszt a little short), he provided Brahms interpreters, especially Brahms pianists, with an invaluable key. A complementary key, this time for all interpreters, comes with the realisation that Brahms was in many ways a born polyphonist. Between them, they unlock the truly Brahmsian sound-world, far from the ‘thick’, ‘heavy’, ‘stodgy’, North German image that continues to dog his reputation. Particularly where Brahms is painting on his broadest canvasses, as in the first movement of the Sonata, Barry Douglas achieves a magnificently orchestral texture. This is big, broad-boned playing of a high order: powerful but never noisy; grand but never grandiose; texturally lucid and tonally rich. The very sound is resonantly Brahmsian.

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With so much going for it, however, the playing overall is intermittently hampered by a curiously metronomic, inadequately differentiated rhythmic profile: ‘monumental’, yes, but somehow monolithic. Granitic rather than oceanic, more square than curvaceous, more angular than arching. Repeatedly, shape trumps movement. Since part of Brahms’s style resides in his galvanic, thrilling mastery of phrase rhythm (where phrases themselves interract in large-scale, dynamic, often asymmetrical groupings), excessive attention to metre at the level of the bar can be fatally subversive. Even at lower structural levels, like the Paganini Variations (a procession of miniatures), too many beats here spoil the breadth. Douglas is at his best when he cuts loose and lets his rhythm gallop, as in the finale of the sonata, which is very fine indeed. Jeremy Siepmann