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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Four Hand Piano Music: Vol. 15

Symphony No 3 in F Op.90 (arr. two pianos) [34:43]
Symphony No 4 in E minor Op.98 (arr. two pianos) [40:33]
Silke-Thora Matthies, Christian Köhn (pianos)
rec. Clara Wieck Auditorium, Sandhausen, Germany, October, November 2000. DDD
NAXOS 8.557685 [75:17]

As you might guess from the volume number, Brahms created a considerable amount of four-hand piano music. Much of this was for the purpose of allowing a wider audience for his large-scale works such as the four symphonies. Although that original purpose has been superseded now we have modern recorded music, highly capable duet pianists must surely treasure their availability. Previous recordings have been sparse, presumably reflecting doubt as to whether people will want to listen to them in favour of the "real thing". I first dipped my toe in this - pleasantly warm - water with Volume 14 but the largest work there was the second piano quartet. Now we have the last two symphonies – a much greater test of viability, and one that is passed convincingly on this evidence.

Surprisingly, all the symphonies have already appeared in this series – in four hand versions on one piano according to the back liner of this disc. Unfortunately, searching the Naxos website left me pretty confused since, in the documentation for Volume 7 (8.554822), No. 3 (but not No. 2) is stated to be in the version for two pianos. The timings suggest that this is a different performance to the one recorded here and it would be unusual to record exactly the same work twice in a series. I haven’t heard that disc but would presume that the documentation for volume 7 is in error and that the one piano version is performed there. Certainly there is no doubt that the performance in volume 15 is for two pianos – the aural image is well-spread – and I would imagine that two instruments are better able to convey the symphonic nature of the music.

The implication of the above preamble is – if you are interested, start here. And if you are a Brahms lover, you surely should be trying this out. These are performances of stature which time and again will leave you marvelling afresh at the music. Symphonic Brahms for the piano is necessarily fairly lean but all the notes seem to be there and Matthies and Köhn superbly convey the moods, missing none of the grandeur or the mellow Brahmsian glow. In matters of interpretation they have had to make all the same decisions as a conductor but there is little to quibble with. In the Third Symphony they take the exposition repeat and tempi are perhaps slightly quicker than in many orchestral versions but seem well-judged. Tempi are pretty average in the Fourth Symphony apart from in the Scherzo which is taken faster than I have heard it before. Tremendous excitement is generated here – this is the track to sample from the Naxos website if you are unconvinced about the venture.

The seasoned collector is likely to have more than one recording of these works already. I was going to write that they should surely add this in preference to another orchestral version then I remembered that the rest of Marin Alsop’s excellent London Philharmonic series - of which numbers 3 and 4 have yet to appear - is already pencilled in my forward planning. But at Naxos price it is possible to have both. Presumably the two piano versions of the First and Second symphonies will also appear. I will certainly want to hear them too.

Patrick C Waller




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