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Historical Brahms

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Brahms, Piano Sonatas 1 and 2 / Scherzo, op. 4, A. Melnikov

(released on February 8, 2011)
HMC 902086 | 69'23"
Recordings of 19th-century music with historical pianos are becoming an obsession of mine -- Andreas Staier's Diabelli-Variations on a Graf, Edna Stern's Chopin on a Pleyel, or Kristian Bezuidenhout's Schumann on an Erard. Publicists, please keep sending them to me, because I find them fascinating when a beautiful instrument is matched with an excellent musician. Add to that growing pile this recent disc of early Brahms played by Alexander Melnikov on an 1875 Bösendorfer piano. The choice is perhaps not perfect, as Melnikov himself notes in his booklet essay: Brahms did prefer Viennese pianos for much of his life, but later in life opted for the new American Steinways and was sometimes critical of Bösendorfer. The two sonatas featured here, nos. 1 and 2, were the young composer's calling card when he made his first visit to the Düsseldorf home of Robert and Clara Schumann in September 1853. As described in the other liner essay, by Guido Fischer, Schumann and his wife were so taken with Brahms that, later in the same year, Schumann lionized Brahms in Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. With mythological hyperbole, Schumann described Brahms as "a young fellow at whose cradle graces and heroes stood watch," the young musician Schumann had prophesied would "spring like Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove," to "give expression to our age in the highest and most ideal manner." No pressure or anything.

Brahms was finished with the piano sonata not long after that, completing no. 3 (by far the most often recorded of the Brahms piano sonatas) in the same year and then focusing on large sets of variations and sets of smaller character pieces. Schumann gave an insight into Brahms's approach to the genre, equating the sonatas he heard Brahms play with "veiled symphonies," and describing the young man's playing "turning the piano into an orchestra of wailing and jubilant voices." We have a good idea of what that could sound like on the modern Steinway, but how might it have sounded when Brahms played it? Admittedly, this instrument was built a couple decades too late -- an Erard, like the one heard on this Dichterliebe recording, was the prized instrument chez les Schumann, or Clara's Graf piano, which the Erard replaced and she subsequently gave to Brahms, would be better. Still, the Bösendorfer gives Melnikov a whole side of soft and murky shading in its tone, with some limitations on the amplitude of sound at the forte end. Having a better idea of what was possible on the instruments Brahms played can help fill out our understanding of what Brahms meant when he wrote down what he did. Add the fact that there is no clear favorite for these two sonatas on modern piano -- perhaps the Richter set (Decca) -- and this disc is easy to recommend.

1 comment:

Leonard said...

How about Zimerman's DG recordings?