Brahms: Klavierstücke, Opp. 116, 117, 118, 119

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Klavierstücke, Opp. 116, 117, 118, 119
PERFORMER: Stefan Vlader (piano)
Born in Vienna and now nearing 40, Stefan Vladar has impeccable artistic credentials and already quite a substantial discography. His account of Brahms’s four sets of late piano pieces is sympathetic, technically flawless and quite perceptive: he can sustain a fine singing tone in the slow numbers and his rhythms are crisp and impulsive in the faster ones. He is a safe guide through the imaginative world of these pieces, so infused with memory, so prodigal of seeds for the future. But there are many such reliable guides who, like Vardar, do this music bare justice – and nothing more. The competition is legion. It’s totally comprehensible, and absolutely right, that pianists of each new generation should seek to measure their skills against Opp. 116-19, as against the Beethoven sonatas or the Chopin études. But one may doubt whether there is much point in recording every new interpretation for posterity. Heard in isolation Vardar is quite impressive: compare him with Katchen, Kempff, Kovacevich, Lupu, Rubinstein or Alexeev and there no longer seems anything very remarkable about his playing or his interpretative skills. In particular his range of colour sounds limited compared to Kempff, he lacks the fine dynamic shading displayed by Kovacevich and there’s a certain heaviness of touch which undermines the poetry. There is, of course, so much expressive content and luminous detail in this music that no single pianist could ever meaningfully present it all; but it demands absolutely total involvement from the interpreter, and Vardar, for all his skill, too often seems outside its inner core. Calum MacDonald