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Johannes Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24,  Rhapsodies, Op. 79,  Piano Pieces, Op. 118, &  Piano Pieces, Op. 119. Murray Perahia, piano; SONY Classical 88697794692, ©2010, 78:44, $11.98.
The rationale behind the choice of these works for the program, listed above and played in chronological order, of Perahia's first recording of music by Brahms in 20 years is that all are compositions for solo piano which mark the end of a period in the composer's development, which one might, following the pattern for Beethoven's works, call the "early," "middle," and "late" periods, dating respectively from 1861, 1879, and 1893. Many of the piano works in the "middle" period were for duet with or without voices, collections of dances and waltzes. In the two intervening decades, the pianist has primarily devoted his recordings to the music of Bach, in particular the six English Suites, the six Partitas, and the Goldberg Variations, all of which were released to well-deserved critical acclaim and earned several awards. He holds an honorary doctorate from Duke University, from which his son graduated.
His intensive work on the Goldberg Variations perhaps stood him in good stead for his interpretation of the opening piece on this CD, which is quite frankly stunning. The 25 Handel Variations do not have the complex structure (and are less than half the length) of the 30 Goldbergs, but they do have an architecture. Handel himself composed five variations on the theme, and Brahms organized his in groups that culminate in the fugue, so there is a definite sense of progression even if it does not match Bach's groups of three moving up the scale or the cyclical effect obtained by repeating the aria at its conclusion. They are monumental in their own way. They are played in a single track with no breakdown for the individual variations and the fugue, in spite of the individual timings provided in the booklet, and unlike some other recordings thereof, of which ArkivMusic lists some 84.
The Op. 79 Rhapsodies (of which some 46 alternative recordings are available on ArkivMusic) also build to climaxes, following something like a sonata form, but the two, the most overtly Romantic of the works on the CD, are short works that do not relate to each other, perhaps foreshadowing Brahms' next piano works, the final four collections of 20 independent pieces. Some of the Opp. 118 and 119 pieces are very well known, frequently played as stand-alones in programs and as encores as well as performed and recorded that way and in their sets, with those sets also being recorded individually, in this pairing, or together with their predecessors, Opp. 116 and 117 — their recorded appearances are innumerable. Pianists often interpret them in their own manner, many doing so more or less ultra-Romantically. Perahia avoids that emotively expressive interpretation. He plays them masterfully, in an authoritative, commanding manner, with power for some, lyricism in others, as he does for the diverse variations in the Op. 24. Perhaps he will next turn his interest and skills to some more of the numerous Variations compositions by Beethoven, some of which the composer never published — Perahia released the WoO 80 set of 32 in a recording of a live Aldeburgh recital in 1991.
The instrument is used well to render the pieces, which sound lovely on it, and Perahia exploits its potential wonderfully, managing its ring extremely well. The sound world is, however, quite different from that which Brahms knew, and for which he composed the works. As it happens, there is a recording (Centaur CRC 2850), a copy of which I own, of the last four piano compositions played on an Streicher instrument in the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, MA, identical (same model, different year of manufacture — 1871) to the one (from 1868) Brahms had in his home studio for the last 20 years or so of his life and on which he composed those works as well as the Op. 79 Rhapsodies. It has a deeper resonance and a more musical ring than the instrument Perahia plays, albeit with somewhat less power. Listening to that CD after hearing this one made me want to hear Perahia perform this program on that piano. What a perfect pairing it would make for my ears at least!
The relatively bare-bones booklet contains the track listings on a 2-page spread and notes in a 5-page English translation by Stewart Spencer of an apparently German original by Katrin Eich, about whom nary a word is spoken. There is no bio of the pianist either, the manufacturer having apparently deemed his international name recognition/reputation sufficient. Nowhere is the CD's total time printed. Neither is there any information about the piano used, but it is presumably a Hamburg Steinway, since the recording venue is in Berlin and Perahia is a Steinway artist. In today's world, where historic instruments and reproductions thereof are routinely used as well as contemporary ones, it ought to be standard practice to indicate the make and manufacturing date of the instrument being played in any recording; many artists and CD manufacturers adopt this procedure. It is fine to reduce booklet size and content to keep the production cost and the retail price low, but not at the expense of complete and full disclosure of basic information. A lot of space is consumed in this booklet by the 2-page title-page spread that merely repeats the information on the cover (with the composer's life dates added) superimposed on a different photo of Perahia, all information also repeated on the outside of the tray card, where the tracks are also added! Yes, he is the star, but I suspect that he, like most musicians, feels that the real star is the music as he plays it, and here it is a stellar performance.