Late Piano Works, Opp 116-119
Paul Lewis (piano)
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902365 73:37 mins
These 20 pieces constitute Brahms’s farewell to his own instrument, the piano. ‘The cradle songs of my sufferings’ was how he once described the three Intermezzos Op. 117, and although only the first of them is an actual lullaby there’s a haunting sense of nostalgia and sadness running through all of them. Paul Lewis conveys the music’s intimate nature admirably, and he’s also well attuned to the obverse side of Brahms – the intense passion of such pieces as the first of the Opp. 116 and 118 series.
Only in the opening Intermezzo of the last set, Op. 119, it is possible to feel that Lewis doesn’t quite penetrate to the heart of the music. It’s a piece saturated with those chains of descending thirds which in late Brahms seem to portend death, and, as he told Clara Schumann, he wanted it played as slowly as possible. Lewis’s tempo here is more akin to a flowing Andante than a true Adagio, and it doesn’t really allow sufficient time and space for the atmosphere of haunting melancholy to carry its full weight. But for the rest, these are first-rate performances, fully able to hold their own against the formidable competition in this repertoire.