BRAHMS: Music for Two Pianos = Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56b; Sonata in F Minor, Op. 34b = Emanuel Ax, piano/ Yefim Bronfman, piano – Sony

BRAHMS: Music for Two Pianos = Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56b; Sonata in F Minor, Op. 34b = Emanuel Ax, piano/ Yefim Bronfman, piano – Sony SK 89868, 59:31 ****:

Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City on 23-24 November 2001, this inscription of the Brahms F Minor Sonata reminds me how small the musical world can be, since I just reviewed the Curzon/Amadeus Quartet rendition of the F Minor Quintet. Brahms, in rather a rare moment of self-indulgence, permitted two alternative forms of the same music to exist. The same holds true for the Variations on a Theme of Haydn, since Brahms did not discard the two-piano edition after he had orchestrated the piece. The two-piano arrangement, more than the version for piano and strings, clarifies the many debts the music owes to Schubert – especially in the Finale, whose main theme clearly derives from Schubert’s Grand Duo, Op. 140.  What belongs to Brahms are the innovative, forward-looking harmonies, the subject of Schoenberg’s analyses in his essay “Brahms the Progressive.”

The collaborative ethos between Ax and Bronfman waxes entirely symphonic from the outset, with the fortes assuming gigantic proportions, without the loss of nuances in the many legato passages. The pearly play in the last two pages prior to the coda in the Allegro non troppo will hearken older listeners to the glory days of duo-pianists Gold and Fizdale. The coda has enough force to pass as a moment from Beethoven. The Andante, un poco adagio, enjoys blissful repose, basking in variants on a Schubert song. I tend to call the martial Scherzo “Bismarckian,” but here, in this scintillating, explosive duo, the music might point to Wagner, particularly the motif for Wotung – Siegfried’s sword. The opening of the Finale, with its eerie chords, more than hints at late Liszt and the 1908 Op. 11 of Schoenberg. Then, it’s off to the races, appoggiaturas and agogics in full throttle. The lyrical moments could have been detached from Brahms’s own Op. 117, although this “tail” has its own development.

The Haydn, or more politically correct St. Antoni Variations, are more familiar in the two-piano arrangement to us veterans; we know of the famous Whittemore and Lowe collaboration on an old RCA LP.  The sonority of the two pianos rings out the chorale motif effectively, and then the eight variations proceed fluently, sometimes achieving thunder, Hungarian flavor, or the grace of a siciliano. The penultimate Poco presto and the ensuing fugal conclusion provide a grand peroration for the most popular of the Brahms variation forms, and admirers of these two pianists have another nugget from the gold mine of their inexhaustible talents.

–Gary Lemco

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