Thursday, July 24, 2008

Brilliant Brahms Piano Music

In grousing over Brilliant Classics' editorial abuse of the term "a cappella" in their collection of the complete works of Johannes Brahms, I seem to have skipped over any observations about the Piano Music section. I had already observed that none of the pianists in this section were familiar to me, but none of them disappointed. This section was not very large, only eight discs; but it includes some of the most impressive, as well as some of the most problematic, of Brahms' compositions. In the latter category the three piano sonatas were shared between Kamerhan Turan (Opus 1) and Alan Weiss (Opera 2 and 5). Opus 5 is about the only one that gets played regularly; but all three are massive works that border on the unwieldy. Thus, the primary virtue of the performances by both Turan and Weiss is how accessible they are. The trip for each of these sonatas is a relatively long one, but both pianists have selected tempi and phrasing decisions that make the journey interesting enough that the duration becomes less of an issue. On more familiar ground I was particularly delighted with the performances and the Paganini (Opus 35) and Handel (Opus 24) variations by Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy. The two Paganini books are amazing exercises in miniaturization, which take an approach similar to that of Ludwig van Beethoven's 32 variations in C Minor (WoO 80) and push that particular envelope a bit further. Finally, there are the two discs of "Miscellaneous Piano Pieces" performed by Louis Demetrius Alvanis, which include some wonderful gems in the forms of "studies" and transcriptions. Where Ferruccio Busoni had converted the chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach's D Minor solo violin partita (BWV 1016) into a flamboyant display of piano virtuosity, Brahms adapted it into an etude to be performed by the left hand in which Bach's source receives as much attention as the pedagogical goal of developing left-hand technique. My favorite, however, is his adaptation of the slow movement from his Opus 18 string sextet, probably because I like the music so much that I was delighted to have it in a form that I could play! This was similar to the point behind Vladimir Leyetchkiss' transcription of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Opus 17 suite for two pianos, which Sandro Russo recently played here in recital. There are certain compositions that one would just like to sit down an play at the piano, even if they were not written to be played that way; and working on Brahms' arrangement of his sextet movement was one of my most satisfying experiences in front of my piano keyboard!

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