BRAHMS: Sonata in f minor for Two Pianos, Op. 34b; Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56b – Eleonora Spina & Michele Benignetti, pianos – Brilliant Classics 94956, 60:22 (7/31/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Two of the Brahms orchestral works have their alternate egos realized in glowing terms on two pianos.

This first disc in a projected complete series of Brahms’s duo-piano works, all to be recorded by the young Italian musicians Eleonora Spina and Michele Benignetti; this pairing of two-piano arrangements of larger scores derives from sessions 24-25 July 2014.

Brahms in 1871 had already worked his 1864 Two-Piano Sonata from a string quintet, only to have had both Joachim and Clara Schumann declare that its form suited neither medium satisfactorily. The task of composing his first symphony lay ahead, and several of the motifs of the first movement would find heir way into that long-delayed work. But rather than destroy the Sonata, Brahms went forward with this publication, dedicating the score to Princess Anna of Hesse. Brahms would then settle for a hybrid of his former ideas, the Piano Quintet, Op. 34, as a fit medium for its weighty, symphonic conception. The opening Allegro non troppo gravitates between its minor mode f minor and its tritone descent into c-sharp minor. A kind of Teutonic gravitas – big with octaves – saturates the music’s cross-rhythms, pungent, melancholy, and martial by turns. When the sunshine peeks through – in D-flat and F Major – it does not linger.

The Andante, un poco adagio takes much of its inspiration from Schubert, even quoting that composer’s lied, “Pause.” The second movement of Schubert’s own B-flat Major Sonata, Op. posth may influence the opening bars. Brahms moves in slightly rising intervals, with the accompanying piano’s urging off-beat filigree. The stretto effect becomes enchanting as Brahms fragments his theme and alternates the keyboards’ delineation of the melodic tissue. The c minor Scherzo alternates between 6/8 and 2/4 incessantly, wicked, percussive triplets in competition with a dotted rhythm march tempo: demonism versus vainglory in keyboard Technicolor. The duo of Spina and Benignetti make the trio section a lovely interlude. The reckless verve ends on a question, to be resolved by the f minor Finale. The two pianos intone a serpentine melody that opens the movement, a tragic affect that Schoenberg himself noted for its chromatic possibilities. Something of the composer’s gypsy music past – when he played with violinist Remenyi – permeates the main melody. Brahms has saved some visceral energy for the coda, which this piano duo relishes at every accelerated measure.

In 1873 Brahms sojourned to Tutzing in the German Alps, finding inspiration in the form of his Op. 51 Quartets and the two versions, keyboard and orchestral, of the Haydn Variations. Brahms took a theme for wind ensemble entitled Chorale St. Antoni (possibly arranged by Pleyel) as his andante motive, a jaunty march with a ten-measure passage set in B-flat Major, a favorite key of the composer for variation treatment. Brahms will vary the motif nineteen times – eight variations set in pairs – concluding with a passacaglia worthy of the contrapuntal mastery we find in Bach and Beethoven. The duo Spina and Benignetti imbue the work’s clarion textures with a series of lovely characterizations, of which the prized seventh variation – grazioso – emanates an exquisite loveliness entirely appropriate to a seductive siciliano. I had liked the second variation, Piu vivace, for its incisive counterpoint. Engineering and sound editing by Daniele Valentini has kept my ears charmed by these renditions.

—Gary Lemco