BRAHMS: Theme and Variations, Op. 18b; Ballades, Op. 10; 7 Fantaises, Op. 116 – Denis Kozhukhin, piano – Pentatone

A distinguished set of Brahms works by Denis Kozhukhin affords us passion and poetry, at once.

BRAHMS: Ballades & Fantasies = Theme and Variations, Op. 18b; Ballades, Op. 10; 7 Fantaises, Op. 116 – Denis Kozhukhin, piano – Pentatone SACD PTC 5186 568, 57:01 (3/31/17) ****:

Denis Kozhukhin (b. 1986) proves himself a passionate devotee of Johannes Brahms on this fine disc, recorded in the Netherlands, March 2016. Kozhukhin opens with a gift Brahms made for Clara Schumann of an arrangement from the d minor Andante from his String Sextet in B-flat Major, Op. 18 (1860), his first chamber work without keyboard. The variation form would become a visceral aspect of the Brahms ethos, here (1860) likely obligated to his thorough knowledge of the Bach Chaconne in d minor. Brahms creates a 16-measure in a melancholy hue, and he accelerates the note values in the manner of a Baroque dance, like La Folia. If the first three variants exhibit disquiet and solemnity, the fourth in D Major, permits a degree of repose and consolation. Something of a folk element appears in Variation Five, which imitates a bagpipe, also in D. Opening the last variation in its original minor key, Brahms reverts to the major mode for the coda, which assumes a martial air. Kozhukhin’s liquid tones and plangent sonority instill the luster to this romantic expression of profound admiration for the wife of a revered master and sponsor, Robert Schumann.

Somewhat in the manner of Chopin, Brahms composed Four Ballades, Op. 10 (1854), of which the first, in d minor and based on the Scottish – via the poet Johann Gottlieb Herder – “Edward,” presents one of the few examples of direct “program music” from Brahms. In the lurid dialogue between mother and son, the first two bars capture the image of a sword’s dripping a father’s blood, while the falling fifth echoes the name “Edward,” with a dire force in crescendo that soon echoes with Beethoven’s “fate motif.” Through triplet impulses the music bears the notion that the mother motivated the patricide, and Hell’s curse will befall her, too. Kozhukhin applies a paradoxical, lush austerity to the proceedings, rife with colors cut from granite.

The second Ballade, in D Major, opens in radiant syncopations, suddenly interrupted by staccato motions in 6/4 that echo both Beethoven and “Northern” sensibilities. These “fateful” knockings become manic but eventually dissipate back into the lyrical Andante with which the piece began, but its innocence has been lost. Kozhukhin has, like Michenangeli, imposed a sensuous patina over the outer sections, lulling and intimate. The ensuing b minor Ballade evoked from Robert Schumann the epithet “demonic.” Could the dotted rhythms and passing dissonances reflect Schumann’s mounting mental dissociation? The pianissimo chords infer some eerie possibilities. The Trio section intones the themes in the piano’s highest register, suggesting a chorale. The last of the set, in B Major, bears the strongest tie to nostalgic Schumann, especially akin to his Romance in F-sharp Major, Op. 28, No. 2. A combination love-song and momento mori for the recently institutionalized Schumann – no less an open declaration of feeling for Clara Schumann – the music teems with pedal effects in duplets and triplets that deliberately subdue the melodic line. The latter pages hover between major and minor, torn between regret and amorous assertion, but concluding in a wistful B Major.

A product of his stay at Ischl in 1892, the Fantasien, Op. 116 represent the first set of a series of “old bachelor music” that concentrate the Brahms version of the Romantic character-piece. The critic Hanslick referred to the opus as a “breviary of pessimism.” The value of the individual note and phrase has been intensified and liberated at once, an effect not lost upon the generation of the Second Viennese School. The three caprices of the set explore massive, symphonic sonorities, while the reflective intermezzos capture idylls, dreams, and what one poet would later call “fugitive visions.”  The presence of polyphony and what Brahms termed his penchant for “thumb melodies” suffuse these highly concentrated pieces. Kozhukhin projects power without undue, garish force throughout the more potent works, such as the g minor Capriccio, whose middle section sighs in tragic gestures. The two central intermezzi in E Major, Nos. 4 and 5, bask in poetic tenderness an intimacy. In the grand spirit of both Gieseking and Gilels, Kozhukhin applies the velvet glove and poet’s sense of tempo to this precious collection of heartfelt monologues.

Erdo Groot’s recording engineering and tonal balances provide the soul of great piano sound reproduction.

–Gary Lemco

 

 

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