From the very first sound it was obvious that this was going to be an album worth listening to, as the powerful emotions exuded in the melancholic opening notes of the Theme and Variations op. 18b (1860), as performed by the great Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin, drew me at once into this Brahmsian-vortex.
This first work is the only piece featured on this disc that was not originally for piano. It is actually an arrangement by Brahms of the second movement of his String Sextet op. 18 (1860). He affectionately presented this heartfelt piano version of the work to Clara Schumann for her birthday, four years after Robert Schumann’s death and five years after writing to her, “I can do nothing but think of you…What have you done to me? Can’t you remove the spell you have cast over me?”. The waves of sadness, melancholy and even tragedy at times in this music properly capture Brahms’ tireless yearning for Clara. The entire work is based in D minor, though the fourth movement features the parallel major key of D major. In addition, after a repetition of the theme towards the end, the music fades away and simultaneously transitions back to the major tonality, perhaps a hesitant hopefulness.
Brahms’ affinity for parallel keys is highlighted in this programme, as the four Ballades op. 10 (1954) also feature this special tonal trait. The first two ballades are based in D minor/D major, respectively and the final two following in in B minor then B major. The first of the ballades, subtitled “After the Scottish Ballad, Edward” is particularly striking in its ability to tell a story. A disagreement is heard between a mother and son in the first bars, followed by steadily increasing tension, until the son finally confesses that he has just killed his father. Even without any prior knowledge of the storyline, it is not difficult close your eyes and imagine your own story that fits Kozhukhin’s vibrantly expressive interpretation. Robert Schumann praised this ballade, writing that it was “quite wonderful, totally new” in addition to having a “both beautiful and peculiar conclusion”.
It is quite astonishing how many colours Kozhukhin is able to pull out of the piano. The difference is immediate upon the beginning of the second ballad, when the sound begins to sparkle with a lethargically happy energy. His performance of the ballades highlights their similarities, giving a sense of continuity to the cycle as a whole.
Following the ballades, come the closing Fantasias op. 16 (1892), which were also, fittingly, some of the last character pieces he wrote for piano. These fantasias feature the techniques of a much older Brahms and consist more of short bursts of intense emotion, changing with each fantasia. Kozhukhin interprets these moods with ease, bringing the listener along for a ride on an emotional rollercoaster.
Not only is Kozhukhin’s performance breathtaking, but the sound of the recording is also spectacular. The sound is crystal clear and resonate, in addition to containing a spectrum of timbre and a tremendous dynamic range. It is almost as if Kozhukhin is sitting in your living room giving a private house concert.