Brahms: Variations on a theme by Paganini, Op. 35; Four Ballades, Op. 10; Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Virgin
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Variations on a theme by Paganini, Op. 35; Four Ballades, Op. 10; Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79
PERFORMER: Nicholas Angelich (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 332 6282
Nicholas Angelich has already recorded an award-winning disc of Brahms trios with the Capuçon brothers for Virgin Classics, but these new accounts of three of Brahms’s greatest piano cycles do not convince me he is a natural Brahmsian. Yes, he plays beautifully throughout and yes, in the most virtuosic of Brahms’s Paganini Variations the bravura is magisterially exciting. But there’s a waywardness to his rubato that sometimes seems to be pulling the music about for no good reason.

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No one, of course, should rely on strict metronomic accuracy to render Brahms’s texts, but after a powerful, resonant account of the first of the Op. 10 Ballades, the mannered way Angelich draws out the end of each phrase in the second sentimentalises the music, as does his slowly-ebbing coda to the Fourth. The Op. 79 Rhapsodies are excitingly done, but again there is a tendency to chop their taut structures up into a series of dramatic gestures rather than following the music through.

There is passion but insufficient focus and intensity here. The already highly sectional Paganini Variations come off best, but even in this work the feeling is sometimes more choppy than scintillatingly diverse.

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There seems to be no current coupling of just these works, so some purchasers might find their combination convenient. But if you prefer to look further afield there are far finer accounts of the Ballades from Gilels and Hough (on Hyperion) or Michelangeli (on DG). Shura Cherkassky’s mesmerising performance of the Paganini Variations, currently only available as part of a boxed set, still leads the present field; and as for the Rhapsodies one can hardly do better than Hélène Grimaud’s very recent, superbly-felt and structured interpretation in a mixed programme of Brahms, Robert and Clara Schumann. Calum MacDonald