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Brahms: Klavierstücke Op 116-119 / Nicholas Angelich

Release Date: 02/06/2007 
Label:  Virgin Classics   Catalog #: 79302   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Nicholas Angelich
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 25 Mins. 

CD not available: This title is currently only available as an MP3 download.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

Nicholas Angelich pulled a fast one on Virgin here. Or rather, a slow one. Let me explain. Brahms’s wonderful farewell to the piano, the twenty pieces making up his opp.116-119, were too long for a single disc in the LP era, but on CD the habit has grown of grouping them all together. A record purporting to be by Joyce Hatto takes a comfortable 72:40. A few minor repeats are omitted, but I doubt if they’d have added more than a couple of minutes to the length. On Brilliant, the slightly more expansive Håkon Austbø nevertheless comes in at 77:09 (see review). I have the famous Julius Katchen performances on LP, but his opp.117-119 take about ten minutes less than Angelich’s so there is plenty of space left for op.116 on CD. I Read more note that DG have issued Wilhelm Kempff’s performances of all twenty pieces on a single disc. So when Virgin booked Angelich to record the series, no doubt they reckoned on getting a CD’s worth. The trouble is, his performances spread to 85 minutes . . .

Their solution is to issue a “twofer”, in which the short CD dedicated to just op.116 is described as a “bonus disc”. This brings the issue in line with other full price single-disc competitors. The trouble is, from Brilliant you get another “twofer”, with opp.116-119 on one disc and the other containing opp.10, 76 and 79. However, for reasons I will explain later, I personally wouldn’t consider Austbø acceptable at any price.

There’s always the risk, when a disc presents unusual features, of “reviewing” it before hearing it. When requesting these records from our Webmaster I added some such phrase as “with misgivings about the two CDs since one should be enough if the music is played at the proper tempo”. But of course, you can’t really pre-review musical performances in accordance with some mathematical principle. My misgivings were pretty well allayed as soon as the record started playing – I started from op.117, by the way. It’s true that in virtually every case Angelich opts for the slowest possible interpretation of Brahms’s directions. But only the slowest possible one. I found no case where he actually goes below the bottom line. By this I mean that there is no case where his tempo is so slow that his combination of clear phrasing and naturally warm tone cannot hold the listener. The music never falls apart, as it sometimes could in Glenn Gould’s curious takes on a selection of these pieces. He came closest to losing me in the F major Romance (op.118/5), but several of his competitors are rather heavy here too. I heard some appallingly personalized Brahms from Alexander Mogilevsky a while back (EMI CDM 5 67934 2) and was a little afraid I might be getting more of the same. But in terms of phrasing and dynamics these performances are generally faithful to the score and free of exaggerations.

What the cumulative effect of Angelich’s slowish tempi does do is to explore quite specifically – but never sentimentally – the more melancholy, tragic aspects of the slower pieces, and the more stoic aspects of the faster ones. If you turn to “Joyce Hatto” you will find in opp.117-119 a warmer-hearted, more equably tempered Brahms. One can imagine that this is how Clara Schumann might have illustrated these pieces to her pupils. In a centrally satisfying way, the pianist concerned plays these pieces rather as Sir Adrian Boult conducted the symphonies. As basic Brahms, you can hardly go wrong.

I should perhaps say that I began this review some time ago since I was sent a white label advance copy of the records. The Hatto scandal had not yet burst. I was partially tempted to expunge all references to this recording – which you will obviously not be able to obtain in that form – from the present review. On the other hand, when the pianist has been identified the comparisons will remain valid (see review). Note that I say opp.117-119, though. Listening to op.116, I get the idea it’s a composite version. No. 5 receives just about the most exquisitely poised performance you can imagine, sheer perfection. No.6 is out of line with the rest of the disc in being extraordinarily slow – slower than Angelich, though there is a rugged conviction to it. No.7 is tossed off almighty fast, and all three have a different acoustic. Rereading my original review was a little disconcerting. I find that I had duly noted all these signals, yet was unable or unwilling to see where they led.

To take up the threads from the paragraph above, just as I recognize that there are some listeners for whom Boult’s search for an ideal architectural balance swept some of the composer’s more troubled aspects under the carpet, so there will be listeners who find “Hatto” too comfortable. They might turn to Julius Katchen for a riveting exploration of Brahms’s exposed nerve-ends. When I first heard these performances years ago I resisted them, feeling they were so personalized as to be almost anarchic. In general, strongly personalized performances tend to lose their spell with repeated hearings, but in this case I have shifted my ground over the years. Every time I hear these performances I marvel anew at the way Katchen seemingly invents the works on the spot, while at the same time displaying such total sympathy with Brahms’s world that what would be aberrations in other hands sound like pure magic.

Other listeners again may well find Angelich’s deeply considered, expansive but not indulgent, performances their own point of entry into the world of late Brahms. At present the “Hatto” only proves that there are some more fine performances out there when we’ve found them. So Angelich can be warmly recommended, especially to those looking for sound a bit more modern than Katchen’s – or Kempff’s – early analogue stereo. . . .

I would like to offer now a few fairly random considerations.

I have already mentioned the beautiful “Hatto” performance of op.116/5. In op.118/4 the pianist attains a towering passion on the last page which I find unmatched elsewhere. His/her fierce steadiness in op.118/3 is also exceptional and I would rate him/her supreme in these three pieces.

In op.118/5 Julius Katchen attains a transparency of voicing and a liquid beauty which makes all the others sound a little lumpy. This Romance seems to belong to him alone.

In op.116/7 it is Angelich’s turn to stand above the others - but I haven’t heard Katchen in op.116 - with a massive, black, seething passion. He makes a real epic out of it and I hope to hear him in the op.79 Rhapsodies before too long.

. . .

The debate on how to perform these inexhaustible pieces could go on for ever. No performance can embrace everything that is in this music but it should be clear by now that anyone seeking a version in fine modern sound will find in Angelich a consistent and powerful interpreter. By emphasizing the bleak, tragic aspects of the music he causes it to look forward towards Mahler rather backwards towards Schubert. A distinctive achievement.

-- Christopher Howell, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Fantasies (7) for Piano, Op. 116 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Nicholas Angelich (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  La Maison de la Culture, Grenoble, Franc 
Length: 24 Minutes 22 Secs. 
Notes: La Maison de la Culture, Grenoble, France (08/15/2006 - 08/19/2006) 
Pieces (6) for Piano, Op. 118 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Nicholas Angelich (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  La Maison de la Culture, Grenoble, Franc 
Length: 25 Minutes 54 Secs. 
Notes: La Maison de la Culture, Grenoble, France (08/15/2006 - 08/19/2006) 
Pieces (4) for Piano, Op. 119 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Nicholas Angelich (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  La Maison de la Culture, Grenoble, Franc 
Length: 17 Minutes 23 Secs. 
Notes: La Maison de la Culture, Grenoble, France (08/15/2006 - 08/19/2006) 
Intermezzi (3) for Piano, Op. 117 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Nicholas Angelich (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  La Maison de la Culture, Grenoble, Franc 
Length: 17 Minutes 1 Secs. 
Notes: La Maison de la Culture, Grenoble, France (08/15/2006 - 08/19/2006) 

Sound Samples

Fantasien Op.116: Capriccio - Presto energetico
Fantasien Op.116: Intermezzo - Andante
Fantasien Op.116: Capriccio - Allegro passionato
Fantasien Op.116: Intermezzo - Adagio
Fantasien Op.116: Intermezzo - Andante con grazia ed intimisso sentimento
Fantasien Op.116: Intermezzo - Andantino teneramente
Fantasien Op.116: Capriccio - Allegro agitato
3 Intermezzi Op. 117: Intermezzo in E flat major
3 Intermezzi Op. 117: Intermezzo in B flat minor
3 Intermezzi Op. 117: Intermezzo in C sharp minor
Klavierstücke Op.118: I Intermezzo in A minor (Allegro non assai)
Klavierstücke Op.118: II Intermezzo in A major (Andante teneramente)
Klavierstücke Op.118: III Ballade in G minor (Allegro energico)
Klavierstücke Op.118: IV Intermezzo in F minor (Allegretto un poco agitato)
Klavierstücke Op.118: V Romanze in F major (Andante)
Klavierstücke Op.118: VI Intermezzo in E flat minor (Andante, largo e mesto)
Klavierstücke Op.119: I Intermezzo in B minor (Adagio)
Klavierstücke Op.119: II Intermezzo in E minor (Andantino un poco agitato)
Klavierstücke Op.119: III Intermezzo in C major (Grazioso e giocoso)
Klavierstücke Op.119: IV Rhapsodie in E flat major (Allegro risoluto)

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