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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
7 Fantasies, Op. 116 [23:13]
3 Intermezzi, Op. 117 [15:14]
6 Klavierstücke, Op. 118 [24:52]
4 Klavierstücke, Op. 119 [16:33]
Timothy Ehlen (piano)
rec. 2016/17 Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Urbana, USA
AZICA ACD-71320 [79:42]

Timothy Ehlen is professor of piano at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a prestigious post but one that becomes a biographical entry that won’t necessarily impress those interested in outstanding recordings of great piano music. However, he has recorded all thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas for the Azica label to generally positive reviews; that’s something on his résumé that will sway potential buyers. He has made other recordings for the same label and regularly concertizes throughout the US, Europe and Asia.

As for his style, you notice right off in these live performances that Ehlen has a plush tone, broad and nuanced dynamic range, a thoughtful, sensitive manner of phrasing the music, and more than sufficient technique for these challenging pieces. At times he reminds me somewhat of Van Cliburn, whose early 1970s RCA recording of a good number of these pieces is available on a reissued CD in 1999. There are moments, too, where Ehlen’s playing is similar to that of Emanuel Ax, whose Sony Classical CD from 1995 contains the Opp. 116 and 119 sets. While these pianists can be quite disparate in style, they tend to take a less hurried, more epic and probing view of Brahms than many others, and they seem to share a certain tonal richness.

Ehlen plays the opening Capriccio in Op. 116 with a sense of thrust and dynamism, his tempo just right and his ability to build toward a tension-releasing climax well executed. He follows with a deftly restive but at times mellow Intermezzo, the rubato in the Andante tempo imaginatively applied.

The ensuing Capriccio could be a little more driven in the middle section, perhaps in the manner of the often fiery Brahmsian Stephen Kovacevich, who recorded these sets, minus Op. 118, for Philips in 1983. Still, Ehlen’s account is quite convincing and some listeners will favor his greater warmth in the middle section. In the seventh and final piece in the set, another Capriccio, Ehlen plays with plenty of fervor and excitement, though he comes across as a little curt in the opening. The rest of the performance is excellent.

The Three Intermezzi are serene and stately creations, though they exhibit more than a few dark clouds. Here Ehlen’s plush, rich tone and measured manner serve the music well. That said, the second Intermezzo sounds a bit finicky in the outer sections, owing to his rubato, which slightly impedes the linear flow of this lovely music. Hélène Grimaud on her Erato CD is more convincing in this piece, her phrasing fluent and natural. Still, for the most part, the music in this set is well played, especially the Andante con moto third Intermezzo, where Ehlen’s masterly phrasing points up the restrained angst and sadness beneath the surface.

Ehlen’s muscular and febrile account of the first Intermezzo in the Op. 118 set is totally convincing and his rendition of the Ballade (No. 3), though a little quirky in its rubato in places, is also one of the better, more colorful performances here. The Romanze (No. 5) is also beautifully played, and the dark closing Intermezzo is haunting in Ehlen’s brilliant phrasing, the struggles midway through coming on with power and a sense of the ominous.

Ehlen’s probing and subtly nuanced account of the first Intermezzo in Op. 119 displays a measure of sorrow and frustration in this mostly gentle but restless work. He rightly imparts a nervous but elegant demeanor to the outer sections of the ensuing Intermezzo and deftly contrasts it with a lovely warmth and charm in the middle section. His closing Rhapsodie has a radiant grandeur and epic character; Ehlen gives weight to the big chords that ring out so gloriously and Brahms’ magnificent theme sounds ecstatic.

The pianist offers informative notes and the sound reproduction by Azica is good. There are a few other single-disc accounts of these four sets available, among which is the aforementioned Hélène Grimaud, who would probably be my first choice. Ehlen, however, is impressive in his own multi-faceted way, and must therefore be ranked as a very worthy alternative.

Robert Cummings

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