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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Complete Piano Works: Volume 3
Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor Op.5 (1853)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op.24 (1861)
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded at the Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge 2002 and 2003
CONCERT ARTIST/FIDELIO RECORDINGS CACD 9029-2 [68.29]


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Concert Artist appears to be juggling Joyce Hatto’s editions of Mozart, Schubert and Brahms at the moment, with Liszt and Chopin not far behind and I’ve had the good fortune to listen to many of them. Her Brahms series progresses steadily and we have here Volume III, devoted to those relatively youthful masterpieces, the F minor Sonata and the Handel Variations. Her Sonata is nobly conceived. She doesn’t indulge the kind of personalised dynamics that, say, Zimerman does so raptly and intensely but her left hand staccato is crisp and even. She takes a more deliberate approach in the first movement than Curzon’s occasionally frenzied drama; if anything her sometimes understated, but never unengaged, playing reminds me more of Kempff in this repertoire (but certainly not Arrau, whose discursive approach to this literature is not one, I suspect, that Hatto would countenance). There is a cohesion of linearity to the playing, of things making sense, but the powerful technique is very much in place as well and a couple of trivial finger slips only attest to the immediacy and intensity of the playing. There are one-take artists and there are patchers and Hatto, I feel sure, comes very much into the former category.

She certainly takes a more robust attitude to the slow movement than the ultra-sensitive Zimerman, who treats its opening measures as an exquisite lullaby. She takes a differing view, a young person’s view and she’s more extrovert, full of tone colour and recreative beauty and a kind of reserved delicacy, albeit a passionate climax. As one might expect she takes the Scherzo relatively straight; Zimerman is full of hilarity and hi-jinx here, even if his is an excessively extravagant reading and obliterates left and right hand articulation. Hatto’s Scherzo might work better if accented more sharply and taken up to tempo. Curzon is unmatched here for incision and a sense of drama. A Brahms disciple such as Etelka Freund (who played to the composer when she was seventeen and who recorded the Sonata in the 1950s) takes the Scherzo at a much more driving tempo; a better one I’m convinced. It works better as an internal contrastive mechanism at the faster tempo. Etelka Freund is perhaps the most stylistically interesting of all – there’s a kinetic charge to her playing that absorbs vulgarity, in its best sense. It’s a feature of Brahms playing that seems to have been lost over the years. The Intermezzo’s three-note figure is most aptly accented by Curzon who gives it an intensely funereal tread and depth of utterance, Hatto stressing more than Zimerman. Compare Freund, who was about the same age as Joyce Hatto when she made her recording, and we find that Freund is more tonally vertical, and stresses the opposition of left and right hands. I’d better lay my cards on the table; few pianists can match Curzon’s finale for all embracing grandeur, power, nuance and forthright humour; above all for the binding of rhetoric so that his finale is a triumphant conclusion. Others tend to be mere summation. But I do find something extremely wonderful about the grace and evenness of Hatto’s beautiful playing of the cantabile melody at its heart – such perfect evenness at a relatively fast tempo leaves more gestural and sentimental exponents sounding decidedly lumpen.

The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel are certainly no makeweight but they echo the virtues of the Sonata performance and can be warmly recommended as a performance. The Aria is phrased with naturalness; Variation 4 is emphatic, much more so than, say, Vásáry and she takes the espressivo Fifth very seriously, playing up contrasts. Etelka Freund in her 1950s sequence of Brahms discs was full of flair here and lashings of rubato and nevertheless a sure sense of direction. No. 7 is an emphatic fanfare, maybe too much so here, but No. 11 has some subtle playing and fine rhythmic control.

So all in all this is another splendid contribution to the literature from Joyce Hatto. The acoustic however, though recorded in the usual Concert Artists Studios in Cambridge, sounds rather more swimmy and echo-y than usual from that venue.

Jonathan Woolf

Concert Artist complete catalogue available from MusicWeb International



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