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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata in F minor Op.34b (1863-64) [41:39]
Five Waltzes Op.39 (1866) [6:53]
Variations on a theme by Joseph Haydn (St Anthony Chorale) Op.56b (1873-4) [18:28]
David Nettle and  Richard Markham (pianos)
rec. January 1998, Endler Hall, University of Stellenbosch, RSA.

Dogged by moans from friends and colleagues, Brahms’s Sonata in F minor Op.34b began life as a string quintet in 1862. The violinist Joachim described it as “difficult, over-powerful and charmless”, so the ever self-critical Brahms set to work creating the two piano piece on this recording, which he and his virtuoso young pianist friend Karl Tausig performed for the first time the next year. Clara Schumann weighed in with her criticisms of this version, having considered the quintet version to be a masterpiece, and so Brahms once again revised the work, this time combining piano and strings to form the Piano Quintet Op.34 which is the best known version today.
The risks of this monumental work becoming heavy and opaque are very real, and established duo Nettle and Markham do fairly well in this regard, creating plenty of dynamic contrast and drawing out the melodic lines as much as possible over the welter of notes in the accompaniment in places. The recording is, to my ears, not entirely ideal in transmitting all of the transparency of which this duo is no doubt capable. It is very good, with a full range and deep bass in the piano sound, but there is a mild sense of remoteness to the pianos, initially giving the impression of the microphones actually being placed somewhere behind the instruments. This is not the case of course, and the ear soon adjusts, but there is a kind of lower middle acoustic ‘haze’ which can’t really be blamed on the otherwise superb Endler Hall space, preventing me from hailing this entirely as a Hi-Fi demo disc.
Never mind. Nettle and Markham throw their years of experience and performing synergy into this work with gusto, heroic and rhythmically charged and romantically expressive by turns. Their technical assurance is impeccable as one might expect, and their joy in the Brahms pianistic sonorities carries one through over 40 minutes of symphonic chamber music without giving the impression of toil in what can easily seem an over-worked and excessive opus. Their opening to the remarkable Finale somewhat startlingly shows Brahms as quite a modernist, and the subsequent moments of quiet counterpoint are poetic oases between the vigorous virtuosity of the rest of the movement.      
Casting around for alternatives, the Sonata Op.34b and Waltzes Op.39 also appear on a CD with Güher and Süher Pekinel which has received plenty of plaudits. Nettle and Markham’s Waltzes Op.39 are full of dancing Viennese fun. They are of course transcriptions by the composer of selections from the complete Op.39, taking numbers 1, 2, 11, 14 and concluding with one of Brahms’s famous lullabies, no.15, Waltz in A flat major.
The closing work, Variations on a theme by Joseph Haydn Op.56b, is better known in its orchestral version, but the composer initially prepared it as a two-piano work as a kind of short score preparation for what he told his publisher were “actually variations for orchestra.” Despite numerous changes to adapt the work for orchestral textures, the character of the piece remains familiar and intact in this version, and it is fascinating to hear how some of the musical ideas seem to take on renewed life through pianistic dialogue. Despite being something of a grouch when it comes to variation form, this is one of my favourite of Brahms’s compositions and I very much like what Nettle and Markham do with the music. There is plenty of drama in the brisk Poco presto of Variation 5, and while we’ve become used to hearing the wonderful Grazioso more often with a broader tempo in the orchestral version, the lyricism in the piano writing makes this reading seem entirely appropriate. The arrival of the final passacaglia is a grand moment, and the duo’s light touch in the central section leaves plenty of room for a spectacular climax.
There are few enough true piano duos around, and David Nettle and Richard Markham are at the top of their game in this repertoire. If the idea of neatly obtaining Brahms’s entire two-piano output on one disc appeals, then this release fits the bill in just about every regard.
Dominy Clements            


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