Jonathan Plowright piano works by Brahms

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Paganini Variations; Four Ballades; Two Rhapsodies; Four Piano Pieces
PERFORMER: Jonathan Plowright (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: BIS 2137 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Brahms is not about virtuosity – or not usually. The Paganini Variations are the exception that proves this rule-of-sorts: a composition in which he almost seems to beat Liszt at his own game. Written in 1863 and dedicated to Carl Tausig, a pupil of Liszt, they offer a technically ferocious mining of Paganini’s ubiquitous Caprice No. 24, set in two books each involving the theme, 14 variations or ‘studies’ (the work’s official intention) and a coda. Jonathan Plowright has sensibly separated the two books and has placed in between them an early Brahms masterpiece, the Ballades Op. 10, along with the Op. 79 Rhapsodies and the composer’s last work for solo piano, the Klavierstücke Op. 119.

Plowright’s Brahms could easily be described as rugged: thunderclouds often loom and there are few moments of brighter outlook along the way. The Paganini Variations’ dazzling roller-coaster rarely gives the illusion of effortlessness, the sense of overcoming struggle seeming conceptual rather than technical – the playing is highly impressive. There are moments nevertheless in the Op. 10 Ballades in which a slightly more forgiving approach could perhaps create an increased range of colour. In Op. 119 even the C major Intermezzo can seem a little driven rather than witty, and the closing E flat Rhapsody is on the stoical side; the opening B minor Intermezzo, though, is played with almost heartbreaking tenderness.

Dark Brahms, then, but Plowright’s powerful, uncompromising vision has plenty of attitude and unfailing conviction, helping to make this a rewarding listen. The sound quality is close and clear, with BIS’s habitual SACD sheen.

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Jessica Duchen