Brahms: Variations & Fugue on a theme by Handel Op. 24; Four Ballades Op. 10; Two Rhapsodies Op. 79

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Variations & Fugue on a theme by Handel Op. 24; Four Ballades Op. 10; Two Rhapsodies Op. 79
PERFORMER: Pascal Rogé (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CD 433 849-2 DDD
If comparisons are odious, they’re also inevitable, and while these two issues emphasise very different facets of Brahms’s piano music, they also have some points in common apart from the composer. First the players: Pascal Rogé is one of the leading French pianists of his generation (he’s in his early forties) and he’s recorded many of the major works in the French repertory. But he’s not confined to them, and as a strong player with a cast-iron technique and a big international reputation, it’s to be expected he should record the most ambitious and serious work for solo piano of Brahms’s maturity, the Handel Variations.

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The Russian-born Mikhaïl Rudy is just a couple of years younger and also made his early reputation in France by winnng the Marguerite Long Competition, and it’s in the colour and refinement of French music that he has excelled in the concert hall. The two discs give a reliable impression of what Rogé and Rudy are like in live performance, and they are two quite different animals. Not that the recorded quality of either disc is all that it should be. Rogé’s lacks both perspective and brilliance: it’s dull and stuffy; the sound on Rudy’s is brighter but lacks depth and weight.

Rogé’s playing is straightforward, without any sense of apology or evasion. More suggestions of the picturesque, of mystery and awe, could be expected in the early Ballades. Nor does Rogé try to whip up much surface excitement in the Handel Variations. Some will think them on the dull side, but he delivers an eminently sane and solid account which altogether avoids a feeling of strenuous hectoring, and you may be grateful for that.

The point of direct comparison with Rudy comes in the two popular Rhapsodies, both extended pieces contrasting storm and stress with long sections of quieter music – wistful in the B minor, murmuring with threatening intent in the G minor. Neither pianist makes much of these expressive possibilities, though Rudy brings a good deal of rhythmic elasticity to both Rhapsodies. The effect is like drawing a picture of a grand piece of architecture with stylised wobbly lines and breaking up its form with cubist-like distortions. If Rogé sounds rather matter-of-fact, at least he shows the music’s form as it really is.

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With the short Op. 76 pieces and Waltzes, Rudy does not have to worry so much about architectural qualities. Yet even in a piece lasting a minute or two, phrases should be shaped with a clear intention, not fussed about with little delays here and there, which give the impression that the player is ‘artistic’ but unwilling to express anything specific. Rudy fails to get to the heart of the matter.Adrian Jack