BRAHMS: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24; Three Intermezzi, 
Op. 117; Klavierstuecke, Op. 76 – Cynthia Raim, piano – Connoisseur Society

by | Jan 19, 2010 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24; Three Intermezzi, 
Op. 117; Klavierstuecke, Op. 76 – Cynthia Raim, piano – Connoisseur Society CD 4266, 71:20 [Distr. by  E1] ****:

As we have had many excellent recordings of the 1861 Handel Variations, I expected Detroit native Ms. Raim’s performance (15-16 August 2006) on the Yamaha CFIIIS to be sober, competent, and dynamically sensitive, especially as Raim has gleaned the appellation as “a new Clara Haskil” from the Paris critic of Le Monde. Certainly Raim packs a mighty punch in her octaves, the Variation No. 4, followed by equally mellow arpeggios for the quasi-siciliano of No. 5. Those lovely, gently cascading arpeggios appear again in Variation 21. The No. 6, with its gloomy left-hand imitation, enjoys a clear articulation. The No. 7 occasionally goes by the epithet “trumpet variation," while its successor adds intricate polyphony. The bass harmonies in Variation 10 enjoy a special resonance from Raim; then comes the raindrop-legato figurations in No. 11 that anticipate much of the late Brahms “old bachelor” music.  The 13th Variation asserts the Hungarian ethos in Brahms, an impulse from his old accompanist days with violinist Remenyi. Good mid-range piano reproduction, courtesy of E. Alan Silver’s engineering. The mighty Variations 14 and 15 segue into one another seamlessly, all digital gristle.  No. 16 is another Bach canon, here in light staccati. No. 19, a true siciliana, projects an almost Scottish folk character. In No. 20 Brahms shakes hands with Mussorgsky. No. 22, alla musette, chimes delicately, a bit four-square but glinting with porcelain. Taken as a triptych, Nos. 23-25 add thickness and momentum to the ascending filigree, eventually to burst forth and land so the fugue may present us with clarion formal closure. Raim gives the progression inevitability and vitality at once, a spirited reading.

The Three Intermezzi, Op. 117 (1892) combine nostalgia with bitter wistfulness. The E-flat Major laments in a folk idiom, its “lullaby to my sorrows” inspiration taken from lines by Johann Christian Herder. Raim rather deconstructs it, spreading the individual harmonies out in moonlight progression. The B-flat Minor, a perennial “rainy-day Brahms” piece, easily becomes a personal elegy, almost a tribute to the spirit of Schumann. We forget the piece is in sonata-form, the B-flat harmonies having been translated into D-flat. The inner small phrase sequences contain something of the Violin Concerto’s melancholy. The C-sharp Minor has Brahms akin to Kurt Weill, a vision of postwar Vienna. The middle section, in A Major, provides some relief, but it may be merely a gallows smile.

The set of eight pieces called Klavierstuecke, Op. 76 (1878) provides four caprices and four intermezzi, a dualism of drama and contemplation. The torrents of the opening F Minor Capriccio allow Raim to exhibit fine color variety within a narrow spectrum of agitation. A Hungarian impishness invests the appoggiaturas of the B Minor Capriccio, which though ably, perhaps academically, executed by Raim, has always “belonged” to Artur Rubinstein. Lovely plastic symmetries and bells for the A-flat Intermezzo; here, Raim does find kinship with Gieseking. More autumnal agitation in the B-flat Intermezzo, melancholy with fin-de-siecle romance. The C-sharp Minor Capriccio employs passionate syncopes and muscular figures that smack of both Bach and Chopin. Immediate contrast arrives in the A Major Intermezzo, a series of gust-ridden short phrases, an Andante close in spirit to the Third Symphony. Another Artur Rubinstein staple, the A Minor Intermezzo, posits Schumann’s indigent (inwardness) as its model, although we hear this dark emblem again in Op. 118, No. 6. The urge to repetition in this piece becomes compulsive, fraught with a resigned sense of the Eternal Return. Sunshine reigns in C Major, a caprice in cascading figures and layered stretti, beautifully crafted by Raim, who plays her Brahms with unadorned affection.

–Gary Lemco

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