BRAHMS: 7 Fantasien, Op. 116; 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117; Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56b – Christopher Atzinger, piano/Kathryn Ananda-Owens, piano – MSR Classics

by | Oct 12, 2010 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: 7 Fantasien, Op. 116; 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117; Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56b – Christopher Atzinger, piano/Kathryn Ananda-Owens, piano – MSR Classics MS 1235, 52:15 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

American pianist Christopher Atzinger displays a sensitive penchant for late Brahms (rec. 5-8 July 2009), a hearty vigor without mannerism that captures the intense but often emotionally forlorn aspects of the composer’s ethos. The dramatic potency of the 1893 Fantasies set, Op. 116, storms forth in the second of the Capriccios, that in G Minor, although we can well appreciate the lateral Schubertian harmonic modulations in the opening D Minor Caprice. Atzinger’s is a bold, assertive style, neither rarified like Gieseking nor overtly imitative of late 19th Century style like Katchen,  but forthright, diligent, and passionate. The E Major No. 4 originally bore a “Notturno” designation, and Atzinger plays it cautiously, allowing its plastic intimacies their rounded phrases and almost Debussian caresses. The ubiquitous falling figures convey the rainy-day autumn in Brahms, trademark of his “old bachelor music.” Atzinger takes the E Minor at a mischievous tempo, the duple meter and askew accents gaining a nervous energy in this quicksilver approach. The mood corresponds to the little scherzo of the D Minor Violin Sonata, Op. 108. The E Major No. 6 hints at martial sensibilities, but the bass chords and rolling arpeggios soon become a presage for one of Debussy’s arabesques in the same key.  The last D Minor Capriccio condenses the bitter storms that rise in Brahms, unresolved anguish and tempests that have always sought symmetrical forms in which to hide their pride of individualism.

Brahms spoke of his Op. 117 Intermezzi as “three cradle songs for my sorrows.” The opening E-flat Major plays as a melancholy ballade, close in spirit to the Op. 10 set but without the younger man’s rebellion. Atzinger slows the tempo for a poignant intimacy, an effect veteran Ruth Slenczynska nurtured in a recent San Jose recital. The B-flat Major has had its great exponents in Rubinstein and Gieseking, Hess and Istomin. Atzinger’s literalist account has pearls and nuance, an autumnal mystery and delicacy. Atzinger’s Steinway D becomes more bitterly resolute for the C-sharp Minor, a mordant interlude worthy of post-War Berlin via Kurt Weill. Atzinger wants this piece to sing its anguished chant in subdued colors, the gesture one of barely consolable grief.

The 1873 Variations in the Two-Piano arrangement maintains its status in the repertory–and more so in its orchestral guise–as the first free-standing theme-and-variations. The five-bar theme generates a colorful set of eight variants, many of which exploit syncopations and siciliani colors in 6/8. Ever since Whittemore and Lowe first inscribed the piece for RCA fifty years ago that mastery of the keyboard filigree impresses and reminds us how strong as well is this setting of the Op. 34 Piano Quintet. The recurring bass patterns insist that Brahms wants his variations to feel a kinship to the chaconne of old. The wicked scherzo puts a nervous light tremor in our feet. Poco presto to the stately Finale: Andante: a noble tread, a solemnly grand demeanor, and a richly “orchestral” sonority attest to the luxuriant optimism that marks this performance.

–Gary Lemco


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