Jonathan Plowright performs Brahms: Variations on a Hungarian Melody

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COMPOSERS: Johannes Brahms
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Variations on a Hungarian Melody, Op. 21 No. 2; Piano Pieces, Op. 76 & Op. 118; Waltzes, Op. 39
PERFORMER: Jonathan Plowright (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: BIS BIS-2127

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This third volume in Jonathan Plowright’s series of recordings of Brahms’s piano works lives up to the high promise of the first two, and it opens with an early work which is rarely played and little esteemed. Brahms was only 20 when he composed his Variations on a Hungarian Melody, and though they seem perfunctory in comparison with the music that was to come, they do have his hallmarks: the textures and turns of phrase are already there, as is the expressive economy and bursting invention.

Plowright dispatches these with brisk clarity before getting down to business with the Op. 76 piano pieces, which he presents as though they are a single monologue in subtly varied pastel hues. Until leading us out into bright sunlight with the final Capriccio, he keeps us in a subdued and understated realm; the second Capriccio is delivered with delicacy and at an unusually gentle pace, while the architecture of the A major Intermezzo is lovingly delineated.

Plowright’s pacing of the waltzes is masterly, his articulation is pellucid, and his touch poetically suggestive. No. 7 is not milked for emotion, and No. 15 is shorn of its hackneyed associations and made quite matter-of-fact, while No. 8 is played without pedal, thus emphasising its odd little lilt; No. 12 feels enigmatic.

The masterpieces of Op. 118 are delivered with fiery splendour. The first Intermezzo comes at us in tempestuous waves, and we are then taken through a series of dreamscapes. The final Intermezzo begins with a faint cry from a rocky crag which is answered by a rumble from the depths below; Plowright’s account of this supremely mysterious miniature is majestic.

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Michael Church