Brahms: The Late Piano Pieces Opp. 116-119

Anna Gourari (Berlin Classics 0016472BC)

7 August 2009 4.5 stars

BrahmsBrahms's late piano pieces exude mystery. The surrounding biographical details are unclear: we don't know exactly when they were written, whether they were conceived as they are or developed into their final form over time, nor whether Brahms intended them to be played individually or grouped together. They have vague titles like 'Intermezzo', 'Ballade' or 'Rhapsody', although there are some hints that Brahms may have had programmes in mind for some of them. The music is unsteady, halting and unsure of itself, often winding down obscure tonal pathways or tailing off without firmly saying 'that's the end'. It also has a complex relationship with the wide range of past musical styles it references, part of the reason Brahms is often mistakenly thought of as a conservative. However, in these pieces he doesn't seek to reproduce, say, Baroque polyphony or Scottish folk music but, by refracting it through his own harmonically and rhythmically experimental style, to mourn its irretrievable loss.

With all the noisy student favourites – the three Capriccios, Op. 116 Nos. 1, 3 & 7, the G minor Ballade, Op. 118 No.3 , and the E-flat Rhapsody, Op. 119 No.4 – Anna Gourari displays a faultless technique: speed, agility and the power to make the piano ring in those vigorous fortissimo passages. However, it is her playing in the more numerous, intimate pieces that makes this disc special. She shows no hint of impatience at Brahms's sparse textures. The way most pianists race through the E minor Intermezzo, Op. 116 No.5, for example, you would think they wanted to get the tedious little piece out of the way as quickly as possible. It is based on a simple, but ingenious idea: the chords in right and left hands are mirror images of one another, and these consonances resolve onto dissonances, the opposite of the standard practice. Gourari takes an unhurried tempo and proceeds to show how sensitive phrasing can turn it into a delightfully graceful and appealing piece.

With her phrasing, she has the modesty to trust the notoriously fastidious Brahms. There is a school of pianism that rewrites romantic phrasing so that it is more flowing or even more foursquare. Actually, Brahms didn't write all those one and two bar phrases for no reason: if you listen to the opening of Gourari's performance of Op. 116 No.2, where she observes just this kind of short phrasing, you can hear how it cuts the music up, creating a feeling of hesitancy and stasis. This means that when the long-breathed 5 and 10 bar phrases start, at about 1'11, the contrasting experience of weightlessness and freedom is so much more striking than it would otherwise have been. While deferring to Brahms in matters of phrasing, Gourari puts her own stamp on the music with her expressive rubato. A good example is the much loved (and much abused) A major Intermezzo, Op. 118 No.2, where she is able release the deep emotion of the piece by subtly bending the tempo at important rhetorical junctures, without ever allowing it to become cloyingly sentimental.

Her approach to Brahms's polyphony is also refreshing. In the F major Romanze, Op. 118 No.5, most pianists bring out the melody in octaves in the middle of the texture, treating the treble as a less important countermelody. Instead Gourari treats both melodies as equal, allowing both to sing forth. In other places where a contrapuntal passage is repeated, such as the middle section of Op. 118 No.2, she privileges a different melody on each occasion.

Gourari is able to draw all these various elements together and treat each piece, even with its repeated sections, as a continuously developing narrative. Many of the pieces are in ternary form (ABA'), but the emotional journey we go on in the second section means that the way the A section sounds when it returns can be quite different. To go back to the Intermezzo (Op. 118 No.2): the F-sharp minor central section is so painfully moving that the A section, which initially sounds melancholy, is transformed into something hopeful and optimistic, even though it is being repeated virtually note for note. It is with this story-telling approach that she is surely getting close as possible to the elliptical, incomplete programmes that Brahms must have had in mind when composing.

Gourari's interpretations of Brahms's late piano works are original and there is a wonderful sense of freedom, but this is never achieved by imposing her own personality at the expense of the composer's. She is able to communicate her thorough understanding of the ebb and flow of the pieces with playing that doesn't seek to dominate the music, but allows it to speak for itself.

By Marc Brooks