WORKS: Piano Sonata in C, Op. 1; Piano Sonata in F sharp minor, Op. 2; Scherzo in E flat minor, Op. 4
PERFORMER: Lars Vogt (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 57392 2
Perhaps we do view Brahms’s early works with too much hindsight, expecting something like the massive, sonorous richness of the two piano concertos. Perhaps the resemblance between the First Sonata’s opening and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier puts us on the wrong track, obscuring connections with the dreamy, poetic elements in Schumann, Brahms’s youthful idol. That does seem to be the point pianist Lars Vogt is trying to put across in these performances. He does create some memorably beautiful moments – especially in the two slow movements. But the last two movements of the First Sonata are both marked con fuoco (‘with fire’), yet Vogt seems to approach them wearing asbestos gloves. Similarly the ferocious bravura writing in the first movement of the Second Sonata – the word that kept forcing itself into my mind was ‘dainty’. Of course one shouldn’t storm at everything, but there has to be some acknowledgement that this is a young, iconoclastic, testosterone-fuelled Brahms, and one with a rather dark sense of humour at times – witness the weird trio section of the Second Sonata’s scherzo third movement.
After hearing this disc I went straight back to the 1987 Richter versions, and instead of a narrow, partial view of Brahms, here was something closer to the opening up of a universe. Yes, the recordings are hard-edged, and there are Richter-ish eccentricities, but the energy, the sense of exploration and strange discovery, are uplifting at almost every turn. This is a Brahms with parallels to the fantastical world of the German Romantic writer ETA Hoffmann – listeners with allergies to the mature, in many ways conservative Brahms might find Richter rather refreshing. Stephen Johnson