Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 2; Piano Sonata No. 3; Paganini Variations; Handel Variations; Ballades, Op. 10; Piano pieces, Opp. 76 & 116, 117, 118, 119

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Decca London
WORKS: Piano Sonata No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 2; Piano Sonata No. 3; Paganini Variations; Handel Variations; Ballades, Op. 10; Piano pieces, Opp. 76 & 116, 117, 118, 119
PERFORMER: Julius Katchen (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 455 247-2 ADD
Naxos doesn’t kid around. When it says ‘complete’, it means what it says. Does anyone really want to sit down and listen to Brahms’s 51 Exercises? Well, perhaps not. But how many piano students, who could derive immeasurable benefit from these underrated pedagogical aids, could not also derive benefit from hearing them actually played (as opposed to merely executed) by a genuine artist? And this outstanding set makes it abundantly clear, for those so far unacquainted with her playing, that Idil Biret is an artist to her remarkable fingertips. Remarkable fingertips? Absolutely. As noteworthy as her dexterity and stamina is a delicacy and subtlety of tonal inflection which repeatedly reveals as a calumny the knee-jerk assertion that Brahms’s piano writing is ‘thick’, dense and ungainly. Time and again in this invaluable survey she reveals that a prime key to Brahms’s pianistic art is its essentially polyphonic nature. Her chords are not thick and stodgy because she voices them, as any properly equipped conductor or choir director would do. But there are times when Brahms clearly wants a certain thickness, a massive, ‘orchestral’ monumentality – not least in the concertos, where he requires the soloist to challenge the orchestra on its own ground – and here Biret varies her textures accordingly, not prettifying the music for a moment, but piling on the sonorities for all she’s worth. Of diminutive physical stature herself, she nevertheless achieves an extraordinary grandeur of sound, which in certain of the Hungarian Dances comes close to convincing one that, like Katchen in his still unsurpassed recording, she has actually roped in the services of another player (despite playing the solo version).

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Polyphonic awareness does more than elucidate Brahms’s pianistic tonal palette: it also helps solve many of the myriad rhythmic challenges in his piano writing. Like his revered Bach, his music is also polyrhythmic, and the sum of his rhythms is often not what it looks on the page. Here Biret is often exemplary, though there are times when the metre intrudes too much, with the result that she rather ‘walks’ the music, introducing what may strike some as an unwelcome element of blandness, and even rhythmic stodge (the B flat Concerto suffers particularly in this regard). But these things are notoriously personal. (I well remember one contributor to Radio 3’s Building a Library who calmly stated that not one of the great pianists he was considering really understood a passage. How fortunate, I reflected, that at least there was one critic who did.) There are times where she strikes me as a little abrasive rhythmically -both of the Op. 79 Rhapsodies, for instance, seem a bit punched out -but in the context of her overall achievement, these are relatively few and insignificant.

Among the most valuable discs in the set, from an archival point of view, are the two containing transcriptions and arrangements. Of these, which include works by Bach, Gluck, Weber, Schubert, Chopin and Schumann, and several by Brahms himself, only the variation movement from his own B flat Sextet and the left-hand arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne are familiar in any degree to non-pianists, and they make for fascinating listening. By contrast with Liszt as arranger, Brahms is positively chaste – and so is Biret. Another intriguing and stimulating treat is the traversal of Brahms’s cadenzas to keyboard concertos by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Here, chastity hardly comes into it. As to Brahms’s own concertos, Biret follows Jand6’s superior account of the B flat into the Naxos catalogue, but contributes the first D minor -noble, broad, eloquent and driven.

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Katchen’s Brahms is not complete in terms of works (there are some sad omissions, most notably the concertos), but the playing itself is as artistically complete as anyone could reasonably hope for. The recorded sound, despite the excellent transfers, has inevitably dated since the early Sixties, but the playing is timeless in its spontaneous immediacy, its full-blooded but intellectually disciplined Romantic intensity and its sovereign virtuosity (the exuberance and bravura of the Paganini Variations are enough to make one laugh out loud with delight). All in all, a bumper crop for Brahmsians everywhere. Jeremy Siepmann