WORKS: Piano Music, Vol. 2: Klavierstücke, Opp. 76 & 119; Waltzes, Op. 39
PERFORMER: Paul Berkowitz (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDE 84319
Julius Katchen’s recordings of Brahms’s piano music used to have a permanent place in the continuity studio of BBC Radio 3, ready to fill any gap by day or by night. Katchen was a high-powered virtuoso, which Paul Berkowitz certainly is not. But at least he avoids Katchen’s crude flashiness. There is a third way, of course, exemplified by that most searching pianist, Hélène Grimaud, whose Erato recording of the last four sets of pieces, Opp. 116-19, is the most expressively detailed on the market. Her highly polished pianism is entirely at the service of the music.
Berkowitz is a rather low-profile performer, not to say phlegmatic, and the first piece of Op. 119 is so slow it loses all sense of movement. He does the fourth piece best, and makes it solid and grand.
The eight pieces of Op. 76 are similarly straight: always clear, but a bit dry. There’s not much charm in the way Berkowitz plays the second, with its unexpected similarity at certain moments to Tchaikovsky’s ballet music, nor does he show a sense of humour in the third, suggesting another surprising parallel – to Hugo Wolf’s ‘Auch kleine Dinge’. He is distinctly sparing with nuances; he doesn’t read much into the notes beyond what the bare notation tells you. Still, if he plays safe, he also stays within the bounds of good taste.
The Waltzes are, surely, salon music, though scarcely aristocratic, and a bit more warmth, charm and, indeed, sheer physical pleasure in rhythm would not have come amiss. Adrian Jack