Brahms was a stern critic of his own work, discarding much of his music before it ever got into the hands of his publishers or the public arena. Thankfully the two pieces on this cd escaped his severest punishment, but not before being subjected to a rework or two.
This recording showcases both pieces in their versions for two pianos. Brahms' Sonata in F minor was originally drafted as a string quintet, but after the harsh criticism it received from virtuoso violinist and friend Joseph Joachim, the composer defiantly scrapped his first attempt and reworked the Sonata for four hands.
The first movement sees the main motif skip between both pairs of hands, bringing out the fragile character of the higher register whilst reinforcing the darker tones of F minor at the lower end of the keyboard. Easing in softly, the melodic line of the second movement switches from major to minor, giving the Andante the feel of a melancholic lullaby. Sitting in stark contrast, the Scherzo follows with its bold chordal character, leading to the finale which accelerates to a presto before drawing to a close.
The 'Variations on a Theme by Haydn' were a turning point for Brahms. The collection not only formed the last piano work he composed on such a grand scale, but its subsequent rework as an orchestral pieceprovided a glimpse of the symphonic style that Brahms adopted later on in life. Based around a motif that Brahms adopted from a wind partita of Haydn's, the theme travels through eight different variations, scurrying between both pairs of hands in the Vivace and languishing sorrowfully in the Grazioso, before arriving triumphantly at the end of the finale.
The programme notes include comments from the performers, with Emanuel Ax citing the 'uncompromising' attack on the piano as a technical difficulty for four hands. Yet despite this, his partnership with Yefim Bronfman on the keyboard is seamless. The resulting performance captures Brahms' romantic style through flawless timing and remarkable musicianship.
Like This? Try These:
Schubert: Late Piano Sonatas (Murray Perahia)
Rachmaninov: Piano Transcriptions (Vladimir Ashkenazy)
Brahms: Piano Quartet, Schumann: Fantasiestucke (Argerich, Kremer, Bashmet, Maisky)