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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Music Opp. 116-119
Seven Fantasies for piano (Sieben Fantasien) Sets 1 and 2, Op. 116 (1891-92) [24.49]
Three Intermezzi for piano (Drei Intermezzi) Op. 117 (c. 1892) [16.25]
Six Pieces for piano (Sechs Klavierstücke) Op. 118 (1892-93) [24.28]
Four Pieces for piano (Vier Klavierstücke) Op. 119 (c. 1893) [15.31]
Elisabeth Leonskaja, piano
rec. 2-4 December 2004, Furstliche Reitbahn Bad Arolsen, Germany. DDD


Brahms was a most accomplished pianist and supported his family financially from an early age playing the piano in dockside bordellos in the German port of Hamburg. Brahms’ output for the piano spanned his entire life and when he wasn’t writing original piano compositions he frequently made piano reductions of his orchestral, choral and chamber works to allow them greater accessibility to a wider audience. For example he prepared a piano reduction of his mighty German Requiem. After he had composed his Eight Pieces for piano, Op. 76 between 1871 and 1878 and the Two Rhapsodies for piano, Op. 79 in 1879, he again published some sets of shorter piano pieces. This was only a few years before his death. The total of twenty piano pieces contained in his Opp. 116-119 at the same time represent his last will and testament as a piano composer. Brahms was not to write any for works for the instrument.

According to the Katrin Eich, the author of the booklet notes, the listener encounters in these pieces a considerable and multifaceted wealth of expressive contents and compositional techniques. In these pieces, which are often divided into three parts, the spectrum ranges from fragile intimacy to vehement expressivity. Eich explains that, “wide-grip chord chains often alternate with fine linear texture, and harmonic and rhythmic-metrical complications combine with folk-song elements styled with fine artistry.” In addition the pieces stand out for their wealth of dissonances that can be said to point to the future.

Soloist Elisabeth Leonskaja plays this recital on a Steinway D, 1901 piano at the Furstliche Reitbahn in Bad Arolsen; a favourite recording venue of the MDG sound engineers. Leonskaja was born in Tbilisi, in Georgia and studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Jacob Milstein before emigrating from the Soviet Union to settle in Vienna. Leonskaja has performed duets with Sviatoslav Richter which experience had a profound effect on her artistic development. However, it was her sensational debut at the 1979 Salzburg Festival that rapidly brought her name to the attention of Western audiences.

These piano pieces, many of them lasting only a couple of minutes, give particular pleasure to the listener. Leonskaja responds impressively to the challenge of the “strangeness blended with the beautiful” - as one commentator once defined Romanticism. The talented Leonskaja captures the unpredictability of Brahms’s swiftly changing moods and at the same time she imparts a sense of completeness to the sequence as a whole. This is quality playing from Leonskaja that is exemplary in commitment, high in expression with a rapt concentration.

Although I am highly impressed by Leonskaja’s playing, my recommendations in these scores are the recordings from Dmitri Alexeev on EMI Double Forte 5 695521-2 and from Julius Katchen, as part of a six CD set, on Decca 455 247-6. 

I played and checked this SACD using several of my standard CD players and experienced some difficulties with the rather soupy sound quality. A friend summed up the problem by stating that it felt as if the microphone had been positioned on the outside wall of the studio. Thankfully my ears soon became used to the sonics and allowed me to concentrate on the interpretations. The booklet notes by Katrin Eich and translated into English are interesting, highly informative; if occasionally rather technical.

Outstanding playing from Elisabeth Leonskaja.

Michael Cookson


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