BRAHMS Nada & Brahms: Capriccios & Intermezzos | Pianist Nada (piano) | MEII Enterprises 7 07129 22408 8 (2 CDs 123:58)

Chorale No. 7 “Herzlich tut mich erfreuen”; Chorale No. 3 “Herzliebster Jesu”; Klavierstücke op.76; Intermezzi op. 117; Hungarian Dances Nos. 1,2,3,5; Themes and Variations in d; Themes and Variations Op. 9 on a theme by Robert Schumann; Sonata No. 2 in f ♯

The first two items in this recital are world premieres, in that they are transcriptions by the performer for piano of two of Brahms’ eleven chorales for organ. This is Brahms in hieratic “German Requiem” mode and receives suitably grand, trenchant performance from Pianist Nada. It is doubtful whether Brahms harboured any conventional Christian religiosity but certainly the reflective, spiritual side of his nature is admirably contained in the music and faithfully reflected in Nada’s playing. The warmth and intimacy of the beautiful recorded sound greatly enhances the impact of this recital, which encompasses a wide variety of moods inherent in the music. As Nada puts it in her notes, Brahms inherited from Schumann and adapted “the contrasted character between Eusebius and Florestan” reflected in the Intermezzi and the Capriccios respectively.

The programme here spans Brahms’ creative output from the reworking of Chopin’s Étude op. 25 no. 2, written when he was only nineteen, to the chorales, composed the year before his death, and as such bears witness to his versatility and the experimental inclinations of a supposedly conservative composer; some pieces here strike the ear as surprisingly modern, others are almost affectionate parodies of established forms but it is that breadth of moods and modes that makes this recital so entertaining. I particularly liked the jaunty second Capriccio with it descending minor riffs, which is immediately followed by an Intermezzo so richly lyrical and Romantic as to rival Chopin at his most indulgent. Indeed, Brahms pays homage to Chopin in that Étude, subtitles “The Bees”; Nada plays it poetically with free application of rubato. It is followed by another Étude, this time a tribute to Bach in the form of a transcription of the Presto from the Partita no. 1 for violin, played here with great fluency and élan.

The four Hungarian Dances are familiar in their orchestral form; as arranged for solo piano by the composer, their textures can become a little muddied and bass-heavy but their inclusion here still makes for an exhilarating experience; Nada captures the raw energy of the folk music which so appealed to Brahms in her powerful renditions. The most famous one, no. 5, based on the csárdás, is riotously delivered; one hardly misses an orchestra as the sonorities of the piano itself assume symphonic guise.

Those familiar with Brahms’ wonderful String Sextet op. 18 will especially enjoy the posthumously published variations on the slow movement; the piano arrangement is so cunning as almost to replicate the tonal and textural variety of the original, particularly when it is played so passionately.

The longest piece here is the set of variations inspired by Schumann’s theme. Given its length and scope, it could be seen as the core of the anthology here, but I do not personally find it to be as consistently absorbing as other items; it has an element of “death by variations” about it, inventive though they are, sounding too often like an intellectual exercise – and there is some strange, intermittent interference in the sound throughout, a faint thumping, as if someone were blowing into the microphone. More interesting is the youthful sonata, a piece of high drama, its first movement full of technically demanding cascades and roulades, the second is a somber, soulful Andante, the third a demonic Scherzo with a soulful interlude, the finale, after a wistful, Schubertian introduction which echoes the opening movement, leads into typically grand, emphatic, Brahmsian statement and coda, ending consolingly in the major key, and Nada is up to all its demands.

This double album makes a thoroughly convincing case for Nada’s ongoing championing of Brahms as a composer who is still not given his due as a composer for the piano; it should certainly convert any waverers.

Ralph Moore