ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS
JOHANNES BRAHMS - Ragna Schirmer (Piano)


JOHANNES BRAHMS - Variations on a Theme by Handel - 16 Waltzes, Op. 39 - Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 - Ragna Schirmer (Piano) - Berlin Classics 1665

As fine a disc of some of the piano music by Johannes Brahms I had not heard in a long time. German pianist Ragna Schirmer, who has already released over ten very well received recordings of music from Bach to Schnittke, definitely displays an affinity for the music of Brahms. She seems to zero in precisely on the essence of his music, and without pretense or self-aggrandisement, simply reveals its nature. She avoids the common pitfall of over-dramatizing this music, and chooses instead, by working with the instrument, to allow the inherent narrative and lyricism of the writing to unfold naturally. Because of the dense and sometimes opulent nature of Brahms' piano writing, one is sometimes tempted to perform it in kind, but Schirmer resists the temptation. By simply using the piano's own dynamic power along with the scope of the music, she delivers an interpretation that is clear, focused, vibrant, and always true to the music.

The CD opens with the Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, a work very much influenced by the strong frienship between Brahms and Schumann, as it holds many parallels with the Schumann works from his Eusebius and Florestan period. And Schirmer's colorful variety from one variation to the next, definitely highlights that point. Soft and tender one moment, boisterous and majestic the next. This is followed by a beautifully played set of the 16 Waltzes, Op. 39, some of which you will remember, if you were a piano student, having to learn and master before you could proceed to the next level. Again, they are characterized by a wide spectrum of colors, of pianistic sensitivity to shape and form. All of these Waltzes were composed from different angles, and are performed as such. The disc ends with the two imposing Rhapsodies, Op. 79, far removed from the Brahms of the Op. 24. In these wonderful creations, the piano is used to its fullest potential in regards to depth of expression, dynamic expansion of thematic material, use of wide dynamics as part of the fabric of the work, and so on. Ragna Schirmer again, by using the piano's inherent power and weight, delivers impressive Molto passionato and Risoluto passages as well as beautifully mysterious pianissimo sotto voce segments. She always fully exploits the instrument's tone and color to match the music at hand, and always moves with the music's thematic momentum to form a unified whole from start to finish.

The Berlin Classics recording has very well captured the piano's clear and solid sound, in a well distanced and natural ambience.

Jean-Yves Duperron - September 2010