Brahms: Piano Sonatas Nos 1 & 2

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Piano Sonatas Nos 1 & 2; Scherzo, Op. 4
PERFORMER: Alexander Melnikov (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: Harmonia Mundi HMC 902086

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Alexander Melnikov’s recent, excellent set of the Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues (currently nominated for the BBC Music Magazine Awards) demonstrated eloquently that he was no slavish follower of performing tradition. This new disc of Brahms’s earliest surviving piano works shows his questing musicality in another way. In an absorbing booklet essay on Brahms’s pianos and pianism, Melnikov cites the copious (and contradictory) evidence of how Brahms played, and what pianos he used and favoured.

Brahms’s partiality for Steinways and Streichers is well attested, as is his admiration for Bösendorfer’s instruments, and Melnikov has opted here for an 1875 Bösendorfer even though, as he comments, it is ‘notoriously difficult to play and to regulate’, shortcomings ‘compensated by the beauty and nobility of its sound’. Those qualities, along with immediacy of attack, agile articulation and individuation of registers, are admirably well caught in this recording: no matter that none of these works were played on such an instrument when they were new.

Melnikov shows himself a formidable Brahmsian, and the piano’s ‘nobility’ is best displayed in the surging grandeur he brings to the finale of the C major and the intensely sensitive readings of both sonatas’ variation-form slow movements. His admirably clipped and focused accounts of the sonatas’ comparatively brief scherzos are offset by a thrilling reading of the big stand-alone Op. 4 Scherzo, whose ‘demonic’ character is well brought out along with the structural daring of its developmental second trio. 

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Altogether Melnikov makes out a powerful case for the young Brahms as bold experimenter in sonata discourse. The ‘period’ piano sound may not be to everyone’s taste – in which case try for example Martin Jones (Nimbus), or Katchen or Richter (Decca) for the sonatas at any rate – but I greatly enjoyed these performances and warmly recommend the disc. Calum MacDonald