Notes and Editorial Reviews
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel.
Six Piano Pieces,
Leon McCawley (pn)
SOMM 0116 (68:13)
Twenty-thirteen is the big 4-0 for British pianist Leon McCawley; born in 1973, usually a watershed moment in the lives of artists and the rest of us mere mortals. McCawley has received generally positive notice in
for his recordings of Beethoven, Chopin, Gál, Barber, and Mozart—quite an unusual mix of repertoire—but this, to my knowledge, is his first foray into Brahms. Since I’ve not heard any of McCawley’s previous albums, I can only base my assessment on this new one; and what listening to it tells me is that McCawley’s Brahms is music-making of a very high order and of a highly refined intellect.
Arguably Brahms’s greatest and most intellectually concentrated work in variations form, the
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel
is the perfect vehicle to showcase McCawley’s particular strengths. The work is technically challenging, but, unlike the
, not in a way that invites overt virtuosic display. McCawley’s pellucid playing lays bare the neural synapses that telegraph signals from one variation to another, while it fuses the right and left brain lobes into an organic unity. In other words, not since I reviewed Cynthia Raim’s
in 33:2, have I heard a pianist impose such a degree of architectural integrity on the work as Leon McCawley does here. This is a magnificent accomplishment.
While a high order of intellect is just what the doctor ordered in the variations, the Waltzes call for some of that typically Viennese
. These 16 short pieces are very much in the tradition of Schubert’s German dances and, at the same time, an expression of the esteem in which Brahms held his contemporary and good friend, Johann Strauss II. Even though they were aimed at popular consumption, the Waltzes speak to a more cultured class than do the earthier Hungarian Dances, and so, once again, McCawley’s somewhat understated sophistication strikes just the right tone.
If McCawley ever so slightly disappoints anywhere, it’s in the set of six late piano pieces, op. 118. It’s in this music that Brahms expresses feelings beyond the realm of analytics. Understanding comes intuitively and subliminally, if it comes at all. McCawley’s seeming impatience in all but the last two of these pieces conveys a sense that he’s just playing the notes without any particular feeling for them and without making any particular sense of them. This suggests to me that McCawley, who is so perceptive when it comes to reading the mind of Brahms, is perhaps less sensitive to the confidences of the composer’s heart.
This should not be taken as a disqualifying criticism of McCawley’s Brahms CD. Few pianists I can think of are equally attuned to both early and late Brahms; the music is from different universes, just as are Beethoven’s early and late works. McCawley’s
is among the best I’ve heard, and his Waltzes are pitch-perfect. So, for that, and for an excellent recording made in the acoustically ideal Champs Hill hall, McCawley’s disc deserves a well-earned recommendation.
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