Notes and Editorial Reviews
Variations on an Original Theme,
8 Piano Pieces,
Adam Laloum (pn)
MIRARE 131 (80:00)
Staring out from the album cover is a 20s-something young man with piercing brown eyes, tousled hair, and several days’ worth of facial stubble,
looking, uncannily, like a much younger and way sexier Gregory House (played by Hugh Laurie on the hit TV series
). If you’ve never heard of him—Laloum, that is—it’s not surprising. His only prior appearance on record, at least as far as I can tell, is in Volume 26 of the Ruhr Piano Festival, a three-disc omnibus of pianists in which he plays Schumann’s
The 24-year-old Laloum was born in Toulouse, began playing piano at the age of 10, and continued his studies at the Paris Conservatory with, among others, Michel Béroff. Awards and performance opportunities followed, as is customary these days for new talent.
Through no fault of his own or Mirare’s, Laloum’s new Brahms release comes on the heels of Murray Perahia’s recent return to Brahms after a 20-year hiatus and a two-disc Hyperion collection of the complete variations for solo piano performed by Garrick Ohlsson; both are reviewed in
34:5. For starters, however, what impressed me about Laloum’s CD was the program. Rather than give us a recital composed of only Brahms’s variations-based works or the sets of late piano pieces, he designs his program around a selection of early, middle, and late works and presents them in chronological order.
The earliest piece is the Variations on an Original Theme in D Major, op. 21/1. You can disregard the fact that there’s an op. 21/2—there is of course; it’s the Variations on a Hungarian Song—but it was written eight years earlier in 1853 and is a much slighter composition than op. 21/1, to which it’s not related. The Variations on an Original Theme dates from sometime between 1855 and 1857 and, at 18:06 in Laloum’s performance, it’s a hefty piece of writing.
In a previous review, I stated, perhaps erroneously, that unlike Beethoven, who continued to be fascinated by variation technique right up to the end, Brahms seems to have lost interest in it fairly early. After he completed Book 2 of the Paganini Variations in 1863, I stated, the 30-year-old composer wrote no more variations for solo piano. I may have been wrong.
Listed in the supplemental section of the M. L. McCorkle edition of
Johannes Brahms: Thematisches-Bibliographisches Werkeverzeichnis
as Anh 3/6 is another set of variations, apparently on the same theme as the op. 9 Schumann Variations and in the same key of F?-Minor. It’s assigned a year of 1868, but with a question mark after it. Assuming this is correct, it would make this, and not the Paganini Variations, the composer’s last variations-based work for solo piano. Andreas Boyde includes it on his recently released Volume 5 of Brahms’s complete solo piano music, which has yet to be reviewed here and which I have yet to hear.
Next Laloum tackles the first set of piano pieces, op. 76 (eight in number), and the two op. 79 Rhapsodies (1879). Of the eight piano pieces, only the last seven were written together in 1878. The first piece, the Capriccio in F?-Minor, was written seven years earlier in 1871.
Another fairly lengthy hiatus in Brahms’s writing for solo piano follows once again. He didn’t return to the medium until 1892, 13 years after the rhapsodies, and when he did it was to compose the first set of late piano pieces, the seven Fantasies, op. 116, followed in short order by opp. 117, 118, and 119. Laloum gives us the second in the group of four, the op. 117. I’ll stick my neck out here again by saying that after 1893, Brahms wrote nothing more for solo piano.
Not having heard Laloum prior to receiving the current CD, I began listening with no particular preconception of what he might sound like but with some doubt, I will admit, that he would deliver a knock-out punch to Perahia in the two rhapsodies or match recent recordings of the opp. 76 and 117 pieces by Nicholas Angelich and Cynthia Raim. It took less than 10 seconds for my doubting to be dispelled. Laloum proves himself a Brahmsian of special insight and sensitivity, responsive to every expressive nuance and subtle inflection in these pieces. It’s rare, in my experience at least, for a pianist, especially one as young as Laloum, to be equally receptive to the bolder dramatic rhetoric of the rhapsodies; to the mercurial, aphoristic, and occasionally gnome-like utterances of the op. 76 pieces; and to the nostalgia-drenched introspection of the late-in-life op. 117.
Just listen to the elfin dance he makes of the B-Minor Capriccio, the second of the op. 76 pieces, or the child’s music box effect he achieves in the following A?-Major Intermezzo. In the rhapsodies, which he takes at an ever-so-slightly slower tempo than Perahia and others I’ve heard, the dynamic range Laloum draws from his unidentified concert grand is of such power that it sometimes seems to exceed what is possible on the instrument. It’s worth mentioning at this point that the recording was made at La Ferme de Villefavard, a small recital hall constructed in 2002 in the Limousin region of France, said to be an extraordinary recording venue equipped with outstanding acoustics. I can vouch for that based on the sound of this disc; it’s quite phenomenal. The top notes of the piano ring with a sharp, pinging clarity, and the bass knows no bottom.
As for Laloum’s op. 117, all I can tell you is to listen and lose yourself in a tearful reverie. Come time for our annual Want List selections, I’m going to find it hard to choose between this and Michael Korstick’s Liszt disc reviewed elsewhere as my piano CD of the year. But you are not limited as we are to only five choices, so get thee immediately to your nearest record shop or favorite Internet mail-order site and get this album. It will be a great loss if we do not hear more from Adam Laloum in the near future.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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