Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5; Four Ballades, Op. 10

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5; Four Ballades, Op. 10
PERFORMER: Stephen Hough (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67237
‘More like veiled symphonies’ was Schumann’s admiring view of Brahms’s piano sonatas when the 20-year-old composer played them through to him in the autumn of 1853; and it is true that their far-flung keyboard gestures and the range of colours they evoke demand a pianist who can command the weight of an orchestra. (The Op. 5 Sonata, for instance, contains an intermezzo in which the material of the earlier slow movement is transformed into a funeral march complete with the sound of muffled drums.) For all the beauty and meticulousness of Stephen Hough’s playing, it is the music’s grandeur – or, at the other end of the scale, its sense of mystery and subdued drama – that I occasionally miss in his performance of the F minor Sonata. There are striking moments, it is true: the luminous ppp sonority Hough conjures up in the closing pages of the slow movement, for instance, or the sheer energy of his scherzo; but for a real ‘maestoso’ account of the opening movement and a wonderfully tender view of the Andante, Clifford Curzon is still hard to beat.

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The Op. 10 Ballades, composed in the wake of the F minor Sonata, are pieces that seem to look forwards across the decades, to the piano music of Brahms’s last years. Stephen Hough responds admirably, with playing of great warmth and intimacy; but here, too, competition is stiff, and the classic accounts by Michelangeli and Gilels (both on DG) hold the attention every second of the way, in a manner that just seems to elude Hough. Misha Donat