Brahms: Works for piano & organ

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Works for piano & organ
PERFORMER: Barenboim, Kempff, Ugorski, Vásáry, Kontarsky, Planyavsky
CATALOGUE NO: 449 623-2 ADD/DDD
In 1983, for the sesquicentennial of Brahms’s birth, DG issued a Brahms Edition on 62 LPs. Now, to mark the centennial of his death, the whole collection reappears on 46 CDs (available as a complete boxed set at budget price, DG 449 600-2). The programme is identical, including all works with opus numbers along with several which lack that distinction. One must note the omission of common, composer-sanctioned alternative versions (such as the viola sonatas and the solo piano version of the waltzes, Op. 39), and protest the absence of the enthusiastic but unwieldy 1854 version of the B major trio, which, when included alongside the more concise and thoroughly worked out revision published in 1891, provides a clear example of the distance and direction of Brahms’s development. But there is some duplication of important works (the St Anthony Variations and the Piano Quintet are supplemented by their respective two-piano versions) and on the whole this comprehensive collection, organised by performance category into eight volumes, marks a convenient starting-point for those who wish to gain familiarity with certain segments – or the whole range – of Brahms’s output.

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Roughly 85 per cent of these recordings are carried over from the 1983 set and in only one or two cases are the replacements notably less successful than their predecessors. For some reason, all of Krystian Zimerman’s outstanding performances in the volume of piano music have been set aside, leaving his pieces to be played by Anatol Ugorski, Wilhelm Kempff and Daniel Barenboim (who then replaces Tamás Vásáry in the Schumann and Handel Variations). Ugorski’s contributions are the only recordings making their first appearance and his playing of the sonatas begins promisingly: Op. 1 profits from an admirable synthesis of vivacity, weight, and introspection. But there are some distended tempi in Op. 2 and Ugorski turns somnambulist in Op. 5, creeping distractedly through the byways of this powerful work for an interminable 47 minutes (Perahia’s Sony recording, a favourite account, occupies fully ten minutes less time). Fortunately, the least successful volume – choral works with orchestra – is one of the shortest. Giulini’s vision of the German Requiem strikes me as overly reverent, and whatever one thinks of Sinopoli’s tendency toward stasis (not so much slow speeds as a calculated way of progressing) in the remaining works, the incomprehensibility of the words due to the recessed balance of the choir tangibly lessens the meaning and impact of Brahms’s conceptions. These disappointments notwithstanding, the Complete Brahms Edition is a solid achievement in which most works receive reasonably direct performances.

That said, this set also suggests that something about Brahms’s compositional style inhibits really memorable music-making. Perhaps this situation stems from Brahms’s density of musical thought, which our age assumes can best be conveyed by a straightforward realisation of the notes. When emotional involvement is missing, however – as in the tidy Leister/Demus account of the F minor Clarinet Sonata, or the earthbound Sextet in B flat offered by the Amadeus Quartet and friends – the possibilities of the music go unexplored. And no matter how distinctive the styles of certain musicians may be – Karajan’s unforced momentum in the symphonies, for example, or the LaSalle Quartet’s preoccupation with the rhythmic/motivic surface of the string quartets – the richness of the music shows such renditions to be one-dimensional. Most successful performances synthesize several approaches. Thus Maurizio Pollini’s traversals of the piano concertos, which brilliantly conquer the formal complexities of two works that often meander, ultimately make a less substantial impression than his account with the Quartetto Italiano of the Piano Quintet, in which unimpeachable structural integrity allies itself with an aura of eloquent sorrow.

In theory, singers can convey expressive specificity more easily than instrumentalists. So it proves here: in the choral music Günter Jena and the North German Radio Chorus phrase warmly and communicatively, while Fischer-Dieskau (who shares the Lieder with Jessye Norman), Schreier, Fassbaender and Mathis are all adept at using the words as a springboard for their musical imaginations. Consequently, the volumes devoted to Lieder (despite extensive downward transposition) and vocal ensembles are pretty consistently stimulating. In the latter, Karl Engel’s sparkling playing is a delight.

The nature of Daniel Barenboim’s sizeable contribution varies by genre. In his three sets of variations for solo piano his playing seems artificially broad. Such a nod to tradition is often proffered here by performers of the large-scale works, among whom only Rostropovich and Serkin in the cello sonatas make a convincing case for stately tempi. But Barenboim sounds enormously inventive and spontaneous both in the Lieder and in the violin sonatas with Zukerman. In strictly instrumental works, the model for a Brahms style at once flavourful and insightful comes from Wilhelm Kempff in ruminative late piano pieces (say, the fourth of Op. 116 and the second of Op. 117), where he savours each variant of much-repeated melodic gestures as if he is thinking them up as he goes. Such playing offers a flexible alternative which, once digested, makes the modern vogue for impassioned sweep without much inflection – exemplified by Abbado’s serenades and Hungarian dances and by the piano trios and quartets with Tamás Vásáry – seem uncomprehending despite all its admirable fervour and alertness.

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In the end, however, although one can imagine or point to better recorded performances of most of these pieces, DG’s Complete Brahms Edition is guaranteed to provide even the Brahms expert with delightful surprises. Sample some of the works with which you’re less familiar and revel anew in an unparalleled combination of craftsmanship and Romantic expression. The music itself rarely disappoints. David Breckbill