The image of heavyweight composer and patriarchal guardian of a decaying romantic tradition makes it easy to forget that Brahms started out as a virtuoso concert pianist. It is equally easy to forget that his third and final sonata, for his own instrument, was completed at the ridiculously precocious age of 20 (during a sojourn with his new friends Robert and Clara Schumann). From then on it was as if he had said all that he wanted to say in the genre, and his large scale piano compositions were henceforth confined to sets of variations – those on themes of Paganini and Handel being the most substantial.
For his ambitious (and auspicious) debut on the BIS label, the British pianist Jonathan Plowright exhibits a prodigious musical appetite, tackling the meaty Third Sonata for his main course with the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel making for a rich and sumptuous dessert.
The sonata again confounds any expectations you might have of Brahms as a structural conservative, being cast in no less than five contrasting movements, linked with a recognisably Beethovian thematic motto. It receives a carefully considered yet intensely dramatised reading, more tempestuous in approach than, say Radu Lupu, but in its own way, equally thoughtful. At its wildest – and it visits some pretty extreme climes – it reminded me of Percy Grainger’s vivid recording but without all the eccentricities. Plowright has a commanding technique and can bring enormous weight to bear on the keyboard when required but he can also pull right back as he does, for example, to realise the beautiful second subject of the first movement. His rapt, yet filigree reading of the second movement reveals Brahms’ acknowledged debt to his revered Bach. Plowright’s Eastern European credentials are on display in the “schizoid” scherzo – a homage to Chopin (or almost to Ravel’s La Valse). The fourth movement, a solemn “intermezzo”, is stillness itself, with only the Beethovian rumblings rearing their heads to trouble proceedings. The fifth alternates between galumphing dance and romantic dream before Plowright grows that extra arm required to bring it to its Lisztian conclusion.
The Handel Variations are equally distinguished by perfectly executed baroque articulations (at times taken at a considerable lick) and plenty of romantic pizazz. Plowright’s engineers have done him proud, every note caught with clarity in a highly natural perspective. Please BIS, can we have some more?