Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3; Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3; Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel
WORKS: Piano Sonata No. 3; Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel
PERFORMER: Jonathan Plowright (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: BIS2047

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Brahms’s Sonata No. 3 is the composer’s most substantial work for solo piano. It dates from 1853, when he was only 20, and had just got to know Robert and Clara Schumann. There’s a red heat about the music and an almost programmatic element to its progression: a love poem by Sternau, Junge Liebe, appears on the score of the second movement, Andante espressivo; and the fourth of the five movements, an Intermezzo, is effectively a funeral march. Brahms never wrote anything like this sonata again.

Jonathan Plowright’s performance has tremendous warmth, plus an intimate atmosphere. His tempos are sometimes too deliberate (the Andante sounds more like an Adagio), and there’s a tendency to broaden almost to excess in quiet moments (such as the first movement’s development section, for example). His handling of the layering of musical strands, though, is magnificent; and above all, it is the strength of his underlying emotional conviction that makes this such an admirable recording, enhanced by surround sound.

In the Handel Variations, written in 1861, Brahms left behind his experiments with programmatic ideas, instead infusing a traditional form with his personal language and inventive powers that were at their absolute zenith. Plowright differentiates the characters of the variations with brilliance of touch and beauty of tone, even if a little more élan might be welcome in the great closing fugue.

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Jessica Duchen