Brahms: Piano Music (complete)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Nimbus
WORKS: Piano Music (complete)
PERFORMER: Martin Jones (piano)
During the 40 years covered by this set, Brahms was transformed from the ‘young eagle’ who astonished Schumann with his fiery piano-playing to the crusty old bachelor who, on leaving a party, said ‘if there is anybody I have failed to insult, will he please accept my apologies’.

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But as this boxed set of his piano music shows, there was no straight progression from Romantic to reactionary. The early sonatas, despite their Romantic rhetoric, have very clear Classical forms, and the late works have a fluidity of harmony and rhythm that foreshadows Berg and Schoenberg. Throughout his life, too, Brahms was fond of reviving pre-Classical forms such as the sarabande and gavotte, and even more ancient techniques such as canon. Add to this a fondness for the Viennese waltz, and you begin to see what a complicated creature Brahms was. Performances of his music need to reflect that complexity; they need a palette of expression much broader than the one Martin Jones brings to them. Admittedly it’s hard to judge because the recording quality is so boxy and distant. It’s tolerable in the loud passages, but in the quieter moments the music seems to lose all definition.

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Despite this handicap, it’s possible – just – to tell that the most impressive performances are the big sets of variations on themes by Paganini and Handel. Each variation is sharply characterised, but the sense of cumulative sweep is well maintained. Jones brings a similar brisk, steely strength to the grandly rhetorical pieces such as the First Sonata, which can sound merely ponderous if taken too slowly. He’s less successful with the more inward, mysterious side of Brahms. For example, the wonderful Ballade in D minor, which should sound like a cold, grey dawn, seems oddly matter-of-fact. In general, the Brahms that emerges from these performances is altogether too severe and monochrome. Ivan Hewett