The piano music of Brahms is a bit of a mixed bag, in terms
both of quality and style, so it seems reasonable to compile
a complete set from recordings by a number of different pianists.
In fact, there is more coherency here than the performers list
might suggest. We have five pianists, from five different countries
and yet, with the exception of one disc, all were recorded in
the last ten years, and all were originally released by Brilliant
Most of Brahms' music for the piano responds well to level-headed
Read more interpretation without excesses of dynamics or tempo; if you
don't agree try Glenn Gould. The success of these recordings
is in no small part due to the measured and precise approach
of each of the artists. There are plenty of performance directions
in Brahms' scores, which you can ignore, but by presenting
exactly what is on the page, while avoiding pedantry, these
pianists present some enjoyable and wholly musical readings.
The early piano sonatas are performed by Kemerhan Turan and
Alan Weiss, and both give impressively nuanced readings. There
can be a danger with these works of excess, and the many densely
voiced chords with loud dynamics can overpower everything that
comes between. In fact both of these pianists manage to maintain
a sense of intimacy in the quieter passages, while ensuring
that the dramatic intensity of the outer movements is only ever
The third and fourth discs are given over to the sets of Variations,
on Paganini, Handel, Schumann, an original theme and a Hungarian
song. They are not the composer's most inspired works, and two
discs’ worth could get to be a drag. Fortunately, Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy
is able to find the necessary variety and impetus to make it
all tick along and maintain the interest. Perhaps pianists like
this music better than I do, but I still think he drew the short
straw on this project.
Håkon Austbø is the nearest thing to a household name among
the pianists in the set, which may explain how he got to perform
the more interesting music: the Ballades, Rhapsodies, and the
famous sequence of late piano works Opp.116-19. He too avoids
excesses of interpretation, although he shapes the phrases with
a little more rubato than his colleagues. For me, these two
discs are the highlight of the set, but I'll readily concede
that that is as much to do with the repertoire as the performance.
Louis Demetrius Alvanis performs the Hungarian Dances on the
last two discs, each of which concludes with 'miscellaneous
pieces', mopping up everything else that doesn't fit into other
categories. He is a lively pianist, and has the right temperament
for the Dances. He really relishes those surprise tempo jumps
and sudden hikes in dynamics with which Brahms punctuates the
works. The first of the two Alvanis discs is the only one of
the set to have been licensed from another label. It was recorded
in 1994 and originally released on Meridian. The recording venue
was the St. Edward the Confessor's Church, Mottingham, a space
that is far too resonant for piano music. The resulting ambience
means that the music loses some of its intimacy, although the
clarity and definition of the piano sound is not too badly affected.
In terms of recording quality, this disc is definitely the exception,
as all the others sound very good indeed. At least four of the
other discs use a Steinway D, which has plenty of punch when
needed and gives excellent sustaining sonorities.
A quick browse around the internet reveals that there are plenty
of other boxed sets of Brahms' complete piano works out there,
and all the others are – predictably - the work of a single
pianist. Gerhard Oppitz of RCA-BMG manages the cycle in five
discs, so if shelf space is an issue he has the clear lead.
Brilliant are not in the habit of charging more for the number
of discs in a set so their more generous distribution across
eight discs shouldn't worry prospective buyers too much. There
is also Julius Katchen on Decca and Idil Biret on Naxos. No
doubt Brilliant will undercut even that last contender, making
them the cheapest, and probably by a considerably margin. With
that in mind, I'd recommend this set, if nothing else as a reference
against which to judge the more esoteric and subjective readings
of Brahms out there. The flamboyant virtuoso approach has its
place, but to my ear, this music responds just as well to the
more measured and diligent readings of these five pianists.
-- Gavin Dixon, MusicWeb International Read less
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