BRAHMS: Handel Variations, Op. 24; Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118; Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119 – Murray Perahia, piano – Sony 88697794692, 74:16 ****:
Murray Perahia returns to the recording studio (19-24 June 2010) for a full program of Brahms, embracing his great Handel Variations of 1861 and a collation of his late solo piano music, composed 1879-1893. Perahia’s contribution to the legacy of great readings of the Handel monument–including those by Solomon, Moiseiwitsch, Serkin, Katchen, Istomin–issues from a pearly application of touch and articulation and a patient, structurally canny shaping of the various dance forms as they evolve from Handel’s original ground bass. Alternately martial and lyrical, the variants unfurl in national colors, Viennese, German, and Hungarian, even Italian, in the form of gentle siciliani that cavort in lithe filigree across the keyboard. The plastic motion never abandons the harmonic outline of the opening B-flat Major tune, culminating in a fugue in four parts that expands the interval from a fourth to a fifth. Connoisseurs always await with anticipation the Variation 22, the alla musette, in which Brahms glorifies the motions of a delicately ornamented musical box. We must grant Perahia’s warmly liquid tone does wonders for the set, in which the Variation 21 simply ripples its arpeggios in the manner of an Aeolian harp. The last group form a deliberate, massive arch, gathering an impetus and momentum quite extraordinary to climax in the fugue itself, a ferocious application of formal and inventive discipline.
The two relatively large Rhapsodies Perahia wrings out of sterner stuff, a more granite quarry than a sea of pastels. The B Minor Rhapsody does relent after a forceful opening to its lyric second subject, but the four-beat “fate” motif imposes a sense of ineluctable doom that verges on emotional catastrophe. The middle section pays some homage to Schumann, particularly that composer’s Op. 4 Intermezzi, and a softer nostalgia reigns, finally resolving to a tight-lipped B Major. The G Minor, happily, benefits from a broad tempo and a leisurely, spacious presentation. Still, the work plods in strict sonata-form, moving from G Minor to D Minor under-girded by an ostinato in minor seconds. Compact but eminently dramatic, the Rhapsody surges with galloping power, and Perahia makes it sing even as it savors its formal chains.
Whatever interior agonies of the spirit Brahms suffered, he sublimated them in his various Intermezzos of his late period. The Schumann capacity for innigkeit (inwardness) has equal expression in Brahms, whose concentrated thought permit passing dissonances that well anticipate urges from Schoenberg and Webern. For the Op. 119, No. 1 in B Minor, Glenn Gould used to linger over each ritard as if the dissonances had been liberated for eternity. Perahia finds lyrical passion in these subdued autumnal musings, the largest of which are the elegantly wrought A Major, Op. 118, No. 2 and the vehement E-flat Major, Op. 118, No. 6, of which Witold Malcuzynski made much. Perahia, too, bestows on the E-flat Major an epic solemnly stentorian vision. The Ballade in G Minor bursts its bonds emotionally–and here Perahia reminds me of Gieseking, at least in scope–and achieves a sense of willful defiance to fate. The F Minor exploits tiny intervallic clusters of sound, again a forward look into Berg and Schoenberg. The sad F Major Romance appeals to Perahia as it had to Artur Rubinstein, a meditation in falling leaves with eddying trills.
The Op. 119 set complete the last thoughts Brahms expressed in the solo piano medium, his dark “old bachelor” thoughts. What few moments of relief and consolation Brahms cedes, he does so grudgingly. If the B Minor enters Nacht und Nebel, the E Minor nervously dances in syncopes that may laugh but smile no more. Its middle section casts a nostalgic look at an era, a lifetime, that fades even as we gaze. The C Major–perhaps because of its choppy brevity–dallies with recalled joy and youthful energy–or was it all a beautiful illusion? The Rhapsody in E-fat Major wants to be the Academic Festival Overture, but a decided sedimentation of spirit befalls it, and Brahms cannot cut the formal rope he designed for himself. A bitter ostinato set in, a throwback (“ruckblick”) to those Beethoven energies that dictated form to the young Brahms. Its dissonances an emotional torment Perahia does not deny, and the final chords cannot decide between optimism or gloom.
— Gary Lemco