Brahms’s Ballades and Fantasies performed by Denis Kozhukhin

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: PentaTone
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Theme and Variations in D minor (arr. from String Sextet, Op. 18); Ballades, Op. 10; Fantasies, Op. 116
PERFORMER: Denis Kozhukhin (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: PTC 5186 568 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Uniting early and late Brahms, the Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin offers quite a feast for the ears and the heart. He is blessed with a beautiful touch, one that can bring radiance and perspective to the duskiest textures. His interpretation of the four early Ballades is well contrasted – which is not always the case in other performances of these craggy, twilit creations – with a pleasingly eloquent flow about the pace of storytelling. The first, based on Herder’s translation of a Scottish ballad Edward and involving a long build-up to a climax that could mirror a nasty revelation in the poem, is expertly controlled. Where there is charm to be found, Kozhukhin unearths it, for instance letting the atmosphere relax for a while in the opening of No. 2; but he is also alive to the uncanny, threatening gleam of the fourth.

The Op. 116 Fantasies, despite following the Ballades some 38 years later, find chunky chordal textures and remarkable subtleties rubbing shoulders in a similar way, though with even more intense, concentrated concepts. Creating those different soundworlds and making the most of the contrasts within a certain unifying darkness of outlook, Kozhukhin navigates a path from the dramatic rhetorical gestures of the first Capriccio’s determined octaves through the half-lit forest of emotions in the fleeting intermezzos. A particular highlight is No. 4 in E major, one of the most touching pieces of all Brahms’s late works, built out of a few simple yet telling gestures (including a falling fifth that could well be derived from a Schumann ‘Clara’ motif). Kozhukhin handles it with all the cherishing care it deserves.

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Jessica Duchen