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Brahms: Early Piano Music Vol 1 / Rittner

Release Date: 08/05/2008 
Label:  Md&g (Dabringhaus & Grimm)   Catalog #: 9041494   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Hardy Rittner
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
Length: 1 Hours 7 Mins. 

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BRAHMS Piano Sonata No. 2 in f?. Variations on a Theme of Schumann. Ballades, op. 10 Hardy Rittner (pn) MDG 9041494 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 66:53)

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MDG’s disc title, “Early Piano Works,” holds out promise of more to come from this young and very talented German pianist whom I’d not heard of before. A graduate of the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, Rittner followed up his studies with Badura-Skoda, Christian Zacharias, Andrei Gavrilov, Maria João Pires, Sylvain Cambreling, and Ivo Pogorelich. With a pedigree like that, it’s hardly surprising that Brahms’s massive, knotty, and rather rambling early F?-Minor Piano Sonata holds no technical terrors for Rittner. He launches into it with the power and relish of someone determined to devour the work rather than allow himself to be devoured by it. His approach reminds me of nothing quite so much as Richter’s granitic 1987 live account from the Teatro del Bibbiena, Mantova, Italy, available on Decca, or the more recent performance by Stefan Vladar on Harmonia Mundi. This is impressive company to find oneself in, and says a lot about Rittner’s technical and interpretive strengths.

Brahms’s early Variations on a Theme of Schumann , which he coyly referred to as “small variations on a theme by him (Robert) dedicated to her (Clara), is a real gem that takes its theme from the first “Albumblatt” in Schumann’s Bunte Blätter . In it, we hear before our very ears the becoming of Brahms. All of the harmonic turns, the melodic gestures, and the lovelorn longing are present in incipient form. Rittner proves himself as sensitive and responsive when it comes to Brahms’s feminine side as he is authoritative and courageous in the composer’s big- cojones sonata.

By turns masculine and feminine, dramatic and lyrical, the four Ballades—only the first of which takes the Scottish Edward , a true ballad, as its inspiration—are in effect rhapsodic tone poems for solo piano. In them, we can hear the seeds being planted for the type of technical keyboard-writing and formal harmonic processes that would later manifest themselves in the op. 79 Rhapsodies. Again, Rittner finds just the right voice for each of them.

Much ballyhoo is made in the booklet note about the instrument, an 1851 fortepiano from the workshop of the famous maker Johann Baptist Streicher, whose pianos Brahms is said to have preferred over those from the firm of Bösendorfer. MDG being a German record company may have inadvertently caused some confusion in labeling the instrument a “fortepiano” in the body of the booklet text. First, both the frontispiece and back plate unequivocally identify the instrument as a Johann Baptist Streicher piano , not a fortepiano . Second, there is no way this instrument resembles anything like what we think of as a fortepiano in period-instruments recordings of keyboard works by C. P. E. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and others. This particular Streicher model is seven and three-quarters feet in length and has a compass of seven octaves. It is by any rational definition of the term a modern piano, and would be instantly recognized as such even by someone who was deaf in one ear and couldn’t hear out of the other.

Any “fortepiano,” as we have come to apply the term today, would not only be incapable of producing the massive sonorities demanded by Brahms’s sonata, it would simply collapse in a heap at Rittner’s feet upon the first chord being struck. All of this just goes to reinforce my argument made in previous reviews that 18th-century period instruments in 19th-century music of this late date are ridiculous. This piano that Brahms himself heard and possibly played in 1851 is virtually indistinguishable in sound, though its mechanism differs somewhat, from the concert grands we are familiar with today. And what a magnificent piano it is! Those of you blessed with full surround-sound systems, turn up the volume and feel the power.

This is without a doubt one of the best new solo Brahms albums to come my way in quite some time. Rittner is a pianist to keep an eye on. Urgently recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins    
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Works on This Recording

Sonata for Piano no 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 2 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Hardy Rittner (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1852; Germany 
Length: 27 Minutes 0 Secs. 
Variations (16) for Piano in F sharp minor on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 9 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Hardy Rittner (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1854; Germany 
Length: 17 Minutes 4 Secs. 
Ballades (4) for Piano, Op. 10 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Hardy Rittner (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1854; Germany 
Length: 22 Minutes 3 Secs. 
Variations (16) for Piano in F sharp minor on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 9 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Hardy Rittner (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1854; Germany 
Length: 17 Minutes 4 Secs. 

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