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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Fantasien, Op.116
Three Intermezzi, Op.117
Klavierstücke, Op.118
Klavierstücke, Op.119
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Recorded at Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany, 28-29 November 1995
WARNER ELATUS 2564 60805-2 [75í07]

 

This Elatus reissue of a mid-1990s Erato disc is something of a mixed bag. I suppose the first positive thing that struck me was the fact that all these major late pieces have been squeezed on to one (upper) mid-price disc, which is actually pretty rare in the current catalogue. It relies on fairly brisk tempi and the odd missed repeat to do it, but makes excellent value, as most of the competition splits them over two discs and adds extra items. Mind you, two of the best rivals are on a Philips Duo and an EMI Double Forte, so the price difference is minimal, and you do get the extras, usually the Op.79 Rhapsodies and Eight Pieces Op.76.

The playing itself is more of a problem. Grimaud is a volatile and exciting artist at her best, sounding at times like one of her acknowledged influences, Martha Argerich. As anyone who admires Argerich will realise, it depends on the music as to how successful this temperamental approach is. In much of this late Brahms, the composer is in reflective, even melancholy, mood so sudden shifts of gear and wilful rubato can have a destabilising effect on the structure of the music. At other times, when the younger keyboard lion is being celebrated, the results are suitably rousing. Take my favourite set, Op.118, where the opening piece, rather misleadingly called Intermezzo, has an almost Lisztian bravura that is truly molto appassionato, as marked. The second Intermezzo, however, is pulled around so much as to distort the overall shape, and she indulges her favourite habit of splitting the hands (usually right before left) which becomes irritating on repeated listening. Turning to my benchmark, Emanuel Ax (Sony) is to find a near perfect blend of tenderness and wistful grace, musicality allied to sheer good taste. I also find my other benchmark, Stephen Kovacevich (Philips, his later, 1983 digital version) to possess a more convincing blend of virtuosity and poetry.

But there are good things on this disc. The very opening Capriccio of Op.116 really is presto energico, and Grimaud makes the most of the tricky, syncopated accents. I also like the closing Rhapsody Op.119, where this big-boned, beefy approach pays the most dividends. But the listener simply has to be warned that the more wistful, yearning qualities that inhabit so much of this music are not so much ignored as distorted. Itís almost as if late Brahms has been filtered through Rachmaninov, or even Scriabin.

The recording is good, though a fairly bright piano and close balance, coupled with Grimaudís forcefulness, produce some harsh fortissimos. Good notes from David Brodbeck. Perhaps at the Apex budget price, this would have been a real contender; in this more expensive bracket, definitely one to sample first.

Tony Haywood

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