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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97)
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5. Four Ballades, Op. 10.
Lars Vogt (piano).
EMI CDC5 57125-2 [62.10] [DDD]
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Arriving almost simultaneously with the Hough disc on Hyperion (with exactly the same coupling on CDA67237), this disc of Brahms' piano music played by the Lars Vogt (born in 1970) captures a young artist struggling to come to terms with a giant of the repertoire, the F minor Sonata.

Vogt enters a field which includes the likes of Katchen (recorded in 1962 on Double Decca 452 338-2, which also includes the Ballades), Curzon (also 1962 on Decca 448 578-2, coupled with Schubert's last sonata) and Rubinstein (1959, coupled with the Op. 10 Ballades, the Intermezzo, Op. 116 No. 6 and the Romance in F, Op. 118 No. 5 on RCA Red Seal Rubinstein Collection Volume 63, 09026 63063-2).

Brahms was a mere twenty years old when he completed the F minor Sonata in 1853 (the second movement and the Intermezzo were written even earlier!). The dynamism and sheer energy straining to get out can seem almost overwhelming, particularly in the first movement, and a good performance should convey the vitality and ambition of youth in no uncertain terms.

Vogt won second prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1990: his EMI discs include concertos by Grieg, Schumann and Beethoven. Born in 1970, he would seem an ideal age to project this Sonata's energy.

Unfortunately, on the present disc he is almost scuppered by the recording quality (which stems from Deutschland Radio, and is certainly not vintage EMI). There is some thinness in the upper registers and an overall lack of depth, giving a sound picture that fails to square with Brahms' quasi-orchestral sonorities. None of this helps Vogt, who, to compound matters, consistently seems to get close to evoking the various moods without ever really getting there. So, in the first movement, despite exhibiting good long-range thought, more sweep is required and there is a tendency to sprawl needlessly. The listener's breath needs to be taken away by both the sheer audacity of Brahms' writing and by the regal maestoso element. Curzon realises this well, playing with a warm, echt-Brahmsian tone throughout: his broad tempo seems more imposing rather than staid. Katchen takes the listener by the scruff of the neck at the opening, relishing the ensuing dynamic/lyric contrasts unashamedly. Rubinstein's worldly-wise sophistication is aided by a piano recording well in advance of its years.

Vogt exhibits some lumpy phrasing in the Andante, never really matching the tenderness of any of his peers. Only in the 4/16 Poco piu lento middle section is there a glimpse of Brahmsian innigkeit. Similarly, he is on his way towards the schwung element of the third movement Scherzo, and just falls short, remaining, in the final analysis, studio-bound. After a promising opening, the restatements of the theme fail to recapture the boundless spirit of youth. Furthermore, he forces his tone in the funeral march-like 'Rückblick' fourth movement, spoiling the cumulative effect. The F major 'con espressione' contrasting passage in the finale brings out the true musicality Vogt is intermittently capable of, and his use of a capricious, light touch thereafter is most captivating. But this is not enough to vindicate the overall experience.

This performance does not approach the grasp of either Katchen or Curzon, both of whom exhibit a deeper understanding of the structure and emotional content of this daunting work.

The Ballades emerge better. The staccato quaver triplets of the theme's restatement in No. 1 are appropriately ghostly and fragmentary and Vogt displays a good sense of colour throughout. The second Ballade is particularly successful, showing that Vogt is fully capable of conveying a true dolce, just as Brahms asks, and the third exhibits a winning and somewhat cheeky capriciousness. Again, however, the competition is fierce. If Rubinstein (in 1970) can seem a touch unyielding, Katchen penetrates straight to the heart while Michelangeli is his usual imposingly granite self (DG The Originals 457 762-2, coupled with Beethoven Piano Sonata Op. 7 and Schubert D537). Nevertheless, Vogt does not suffer in the act of comparison in the same way as he did in the Sonata.

The Ballades do not justify the purchase of this disc, however, especially at full price. Certainly the F minor Sonata requires a maturity at present beyond this promising and obviously ambitious young pianist.

Colin Clarke

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