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Johannes Brahms
Handel Variations opus 24
Two Rhapsodies opus 79
Six Piano Pieces opus 118
Four Piano Pieces opus 119
Murray Perahia, Piano
Review By Phil Gold


  The major work on this Brahms recital is the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel. It enters a crowded field. I reviewed Shai Wosner's performance earlier in these pages [Onyx 4055]. While Wosner is right at home on Scheonberg's Suite opus 25, I could not muster much enthusiasm for his Brahms, concluding "I suspect he plays the Brahms the way he does to highlight the similarities between the two composers, discarding some of the poetry and flow to make his point."

My colleague Max Westler was not much more forthcoming in his assessment of Olga Kern's version, recommending instead Leon Fleisher's 1956 performance which has just been reissued at bargain price in the wonderful set Leon Fleisher Plays Beethoven and Brahms [Sony Classical 88691918052]. You won't be turning to this version for its recorded sound, which is rather unflattering and with a fair amount of tape hiss, but Max is right on the money. You will find a directness and passion that truly convinces the listener, although if I had to criticize the performance itself, it would be for the relative stability of the volume level throughout.

Also at bargain price, Naxos features IdilBiret in a well recorded studio performance from 1989, along with the early Variations on a Theme by Schumann and the Variations on a Theme by Paganini Opus 35 [Naxos 8.550350]. This is another dramatic reading with an excellent feeling for Brahms' sonorities. It bears many similarities in approach and timing to the Fleisher recording, but the recording shows 33 years' worth of improvement.

So am I buying what Perahia is selling? For the Handel Variations, an unequivocal yes! Perahia's piano is superbly captured here, with a clarity and level of inner detail that quite escape the Naxos recording. On sound quality alone, this version is a superb example of the art of recording a concert piano. And that fidelity serves this music very well, with its wide range of dynamics and color. There is also freshness and a quicksilver nature to the playing that puts me in mind of Martha Argerich. Also remarkable is the attention to detail throughout. There are no finger faults here, but the virtuosity goes much further than that to a wonderful precision of exact note length, clean striking and fullness of tone that his close association in recent years with the music of Bach may well have enhanced. Taking the mechanical and mathematical skills that are required for a great set of the Goldberg Variations into the romantic world of Brahms is an excellent idea, and especially so when the Brahms in question is infused by that other baroque master, Handel. There are details in this performance that you cannot discern in Biret or Fleisher, due I suspect both to Sony's excellent engineering and to Perahia's meticulous attention to detail and fine sense of balance between the left and right hands.

But in the later works on this disc, Perahia does not fully convince. The color of his playing lacks a certain richness while the piano tone is cooler and less dynamic. When I turn to the 9CD box Arthur Rubinstein Plays Brahms [RCA Red Seal 886977609923] there is a natural flow that escapes Perahia. This was Rubinstein at his very best. He had a special affinity with Brahms that only Gilels and Katchen approached. Some of the recordings are from 1959 with a sound that cannot compare to today's best, but other pieces date from 1970 and carry their years very well indeed. The whole box is very special, with the highlight being the Piano Quartets recorded with members of the Guarneri String Quartet.

So if you're looking for a superb performance of the Handel Variations, this is a splendid disc, but for the late Brahms solo piano repertoire, this disc is missing the magic.



Performance: 5 (Op 24)      3.5 (Op 79, Op 118, Op 119)

Sound Quality: 5 (Op 24)     4.5 (Op 79, Op 118, Op 119)

Enjoyment: 5 (Op 24)      3.5 (Op 79, Op 118, Op 119)















































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