Brahms: Sonata in F minor for two pianos, Op. 34b; Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56b

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Sony
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms Piano works
WORKS: Sonata in F minor for two pianos, Op. 34b; Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56b
PERFORMER: Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: SK 89868
Considering that Brahms’s Piano Quintet is so frequently recorded, the discography for its alternative incarnation – the Sonata for two pianos that Brahms created from his abandoned idea for a string quintet – is surprisingly sparse. And there’s only one current rival in the very logical coupling of the Sonata with the Haydn Variations in its equally valid two-piano form, from the team of Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn (Naxos). Though the Piano Quintet remains the near-ideal incarnation of Op. 34, this is music that doesn’t sit perfectly in either instrumentation, and there are reasons to prefer the Sonata in places: notably the scherzo, where the sheer percussive power of two keyboards has the extra edge.

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Ax and Bronfman set a new benchmark in the Sonata for their powerful shaping of its broad architectural sweep and the emotional intensity and understanding they bring to its complex and troubled moods. Technically speaking they are always wholly in command (the scherzo is thrilling), and if I have any criticism it is of the balance of the recording, in which – both here and in the Variations – some subsidiary details are occasionally unclear. The Variations is a performance of equal excellence but does not, for me, quite displace Murray Perahia and Georg Solti’s classic account for sheer colour and affection. A sterling disc nonetheless. Calum MacDonald