British pianist Jonathan Plowright continues his much-lauded coverage of Brahms’ solo piano music with this third volume in the series for BIS. It opens with the 15 Variations on a Hungarian Melody from 1853 (Op. 21, No 2), an earlier manifestation of Brahms’ fascination with Hungarian gypsy music that stemmed from his relationship with violinist Eduard Reményi and received fuller expression in the gypsy rondo of his First Piano Quartet, Op. 25.
Like Brahms’ gypsy forays, his 16 Waltzes, Op. 39 (from 1865) were regarded by some critics as unconscionable descents into mainstream sensibility; they are indeed popular works, but no less delightful for this, and delivered by Plowright with sprightly vigour and zest. The influence of Beethoven and Schubert is evident in the Eight Klavierstücke of Op. 76 (1878), which move into deeper, more mysterious territory. Finally, with the Six Klavierstücke of Op. 118 (1892), we are plunged headlong into deep, stream-of-consciousness introspection, contemplation juxtaposed with volcanic anguish. The last of these is particularly disquieting, foreshadowing Debussy and defying resolution as it erupts and disappears into the mist. There is a dizzyingly broad spectrum of emotional terrain to traverse over these four sets of pieces, and Plowright navigates it all with ease and consummate technique.
Inevitably, these recordings have drawn comparisons with another great Brahms solo piano cycle, recorded by Julius Katchen for Decca in the mid-1960s. Katchen is still praised for masterly technique, poetic awareness and deep understanding of Brahms’ compositional sensibility; Jonathan Plowright is a more than worthy successor, scaling new heights of transcendence. Mention must also be made of the superb Super Audio recording, with its rich, even balance across the sonic spectrum, lack of brittle brightness, and warm, resonant silences, an outstanding package completed by Bryce Morrison’s excellent liner notes. It’s not possible to fault this disc, and it’s advisable to get hold of the first two volumes and wait with great excitement for the next.