GRAMOPHONE AWARDS SHORTLIST 2018
other way, which is perhaps the definition of a great artist.
The sound Volodos coaxes from the piano, for starters, is like no one else’s and has been captured superbly by Sony’s engineers, utterly true to the way he sounds live in concert. It’s one that is entirely devoid of hard edges, with myriad shadings right through the register, as we hear in the agitated opening piece of Op 76. Brahms’s fondness for alto and tenor registers is luxuriantly realised too, though such is the subtlety of Volodos’s voicings that nothing ever becomes opaque. Readings are often broad in terms of pacing, but it has the effect of giving the music time to speak and to register. From the turbulence of No 1 we move to an entirely different world in the second piece of Op 76, here reminiscent of Schubert at his most carefree, the motion deliciously wound down at the close. The third ranges from the extraordinary fragility of the writing in the upper reaches – sounding here more than ever like a music box – down to the refulgent bass, while the gentle melody of the fourth finds itself clothed in new colours on every repetition, Volodos subtly altering the mood with each one.
Even a piece as familiar as the second of the Op 117 Intermezzos sounds new in the hands of this pianist – partly a matter of colouring, partly his spacious pacing, and partly the fact that he thinks like a singer, subtly varying each phrase as if illustrating a text. The First Intermezzo in the set is a good example of ‘don’t try this at home’, unfolding as it does at a dangerously languid pace that would become merely comatose in the hands of a lesser artist. Hands and brain, for Volodos has clearly thought minutely about every note, every phrase of the pieces on offer here, and it is that intimacy with the pieces that sets him free, allowing each one to take wing. How awestruck the minor-key inner section of this First Intermezzo sounds here (track 6, 2’34”), Volodos taking not only its Più adagio to heart but also its pp sempre ma molto espressivo marking. How telling are those bare octaves that open No 3, too, anguish barely reined in by their pianissimo marking, reminding us of Brahms’s description of this Intermezzo as ‘the lullaby of all my griefs’. But it’s not all darkness – the way he pauses before the return to Tempo 1 (track 7, 4’22”) and then caresses its opening chord is yet another instance of the sheer beauty of Volodos’s playing.
The more explosive writing in the six pieces that make up Op 118 is always cushioned, with Volodos letting light into the textures – a world away from the shoutiness you get from some artists. This applies not only to the opening of the set but also, more particularly, the Ballade (No 3), which is less hell for leather than it can be, and all the more striking for that. In the fourth we go on an extraordinary emotional journey in under three minutes, while the chordal fifth, with its beautifully floated middle section, is simply ravishing. In the extraordinary final number Volodos reminds us of Schoenberg’s notion of ‘Brahms the progressive’, imbuing as he does the opening G flat with an extraordinary sense of portent, from which we journey from an almost Impressionistic wash of sound, via orchestral range and depth in its middle section, to the profound unease of the Intermezzo’s final moments.
Comparisons become irrelevant in interpretations of such mesmerising honesty. An award-winner if ever I heard one. Harriet Smith (6/17)
Brahms Piano Sonata No 3, Op 5. Piano Pieces: Op 76 – No 3; No 4; Op 116 – No 1; No 4; Op 117 No 2; Op 118 – No 2; No 3. Four Piano Pieces, Op 119. Waltz, Op 39 No 15 Nelson Freire pf Decca F 483 2154DH (73’ • DDD)
Brahms’s Third Sonata has been a calling card for Nelson Freire since the earliest days – for his farewell recital in Rio de Janeiro aged 14 and for his debut recital LP for CBS aged 22. And now, 50 years after that release, he has returned to the piece. Were Freire your average kind of pianist (ludicrous notion though that is), you might anticipate that the 72-year-old would display a diminution of technical aplomb but an increase in gravitas and depth. Not a bit of it – what’s interesting is how fundamentally similar these readings are. Returning to his earlier recording, you’re struck anew at its maturity, with its combination of nobility and an unerring sense of pacing. The only major difference in timings is because in the first movement he now observes the exposition repeat.
Freire’s sound has always been a thing of wonder: even at full volume and full tilt there’s no hint of percussiveness in his tone – just sample the development of the first movement; or the way the melody of the intermezzo-like slow movement is plucked almost insouciantly out of the texture (where the earlier version was elegant, this is utterly luminous). If the dizzy unpredictability of the finale is just a shade more unhinged in 1967, this newer one has lost nothing in playfulness. Freire’s zest for this piece is palpably undimmed and what a joy it is.
He follows the sonata with a bouquet of Brahms’s later pieces. From Op 76, he relishes the ethereal opening of No 3 (less free with rubato than the devilishly luxuriant Volodos) and finds a profundity to the songful No 4. That’s a quality he reveals in the second of the Op 117 pieces, too, while the presto Capriccio that opens Op 116 has energy without ever seeming rushed, Freire voicing Brahms’s rich textures with an easeful mastery.
Highlights are many – the regret-filled duet of the middle section of Op 118 No 2 or the way he brings to such a quiet close the Ballade, Op 118 No 3. He is different in his approach from Volodos in Op 118 but no less compelling. I hope the inclusion of the final works, Op 119, is not an indication that Freire is done with this composer: they are touched everywhere with an ineluctable beauty without the slightest degree of self-consciousness. No 1 draws you in, unfolding with complete naturalness, spinning lines out of air, while the chattering No 3 is superbly vivid. Freire gives No 4 not only strength and fervency but an almost symphonic splendour in its colouring, the inner section having an easeful quality before being quickly banished. By way of an encore, we get a deliciously poised reading of the Waltz, Op 39 No 15. Enough adjectives. Go and buy it, and set it on your shelves next to Volodos. Harriet Smith (A/17) Sonata No 3 – selected comparison: Freire (12/14) (SONY) 88875 00228-2 Opp 76, 117 & 118 – selected comparison: Volodos (6/17) (SONY) 88875 13019-2
Messiaen Catalogue d’oiseaux Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf Pentatone F c Í PTC5186 670 (153’ • DDD/DSD)
Messiaen’s birds have, it seems, been tamed: at least to the extent that there are something like a dozen versions of the Catalogue d’oiseaux obtainable on CD or as downloads. Once upon a time such a plethora would have been hard to conceive, given the extreme demands of the 13 pieces on the pianist’s physical and mental agility, plus the challenge for the listener of their remorselessly forbidding textures and obsessive cut-and-paste structures. Not that his other great piano cycle, the Vingt
24 GRAMOPHONE SHORTLIST 2018
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