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]
and Richard Markham (pianos)
rec. January 1998, Endler Hall, University of Stellenbosch,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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