Brahms: Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5; Variations on a Theme by Paganini; Intermezzi (excerpts)

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Ivory
WORKS: Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5; Variations on a Theme by Paganini; Intermezzi (excerpts)
PERFORMER: Earl Wild (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CD-72008
Earl Wild, now 87, recorded the Brahms F minor Sonata – one of the most taxing large-scale items of the regular repertoire – when he was 86. This statistic alone makes it an astonishing achievement; Wild’s sovereign keyboard command makes it a phenomenal one. His characteristic sonority, full of light and natural buoyancy, is beautifully captured by the spacious, slightly resonant Ivory recording (the label, started principally to record the distinguished American pianist, has been responsible for, inter alia, last year’s Wild CD of little-known pieces by Reynaldo Hahn, one of the highlights of my listening year). Along with Wild’s rhythmic sophistication and tonal fastidiousness, this sound ensures complete avoidance of the ponderousness and clotted textures that tend to trouble less assured Brahmsians in this work.

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Piano lovers should certainly hear this remarkable disc. That said, none of its contents – including the late short pieces, recorded two years earlier, and an excitingly uninhibited live Paganini Variations from 1982 (in less spacious but still acceptable sound) – would be my first-choice recommendations. In their different ways the Sonata readings of Solomon, Arrau, Lupu, Perahia, Annie Fischer (BBC Legends live recording) and Curzon (my benchmark pianist, though he skips the first-movement repeat and the disc is currently out of the catalogue) all achieve a profound exploration of the work’s ‘nervous system’; in Wild’s performance this somehow goes missing, as do the sharper degrees of dramatic intensity built up through pinpoint mastery of detail. The smaller pieces again show him to be a magisterial pianist and yet a somewhat detached, externalised painter of Brahms’s autumnal shades and delicately poignant emotions. Max Loppert