SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
BRAHMS: Complete Piano Music Vol. 4 = Zwei Rhapsodien; Klavierstücke; Scherzo; Walzer – Hardy Rittner, p. – MD&G
Published on December 6, 2013
BRAHMS: Complete Piano Music Vol. 4 = Zwei Rhapsodien, Op. 79; Klavierstücke, Op. 76; Scherzo, Op. 4; Walzer, Op. 39 – Hardy Rittner, piano – MD&G multichannel SACD (2+2+2) MDG 904 1810-6, 63:55 [7/30/13] (Distr. by E1) ****:
My first experience of Hardy Rittner’s Brahms (the late piano works, collected on Vol. 3 of this series) was mostly positive though I noted that the pianist seemed to draw the greatest expressivity from the quieter and more reflective music. I also opined that part of the problem in the faster pieces may have been his choice of instruments: a Johann Baptist Streicher & Sohn piano of 1870 and a J. M. Schweighofer’s Söhne piano of 1876-77. Well, guess what? On the current program Rittner uses two Streicher pianos, from 1868 (for the Rhapsodien and Klavierstücke) and 1856 (for the rest, save the Scherzo), and I’m even more favorably impressed, with both the pianism and the old pianos.
Still, some of the gentler pieces, such as the Intermezzo in A-flat: Grazioso from Op. 76) emerge with a special burnish (or is it patina?) that makes them sound very Brahmsian, while the faster pieces (for example, the Capriccio in C-sharp: Agitato, ma non troppo presto) tend to a certain brittleness, compared to a performance on a modern grand. Maybe that goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway and add that for me, any recordings of Brahms on old pianos will supplement rather than replace those on modern pianos. With that reservation disposed of, I’ll say as well that the current recording is an enjoyable and useful supplement, inviting us into the sound world that Brahms experienced as performer and auditor while at the same time offering performances that are very fine in their own right.
The older Streicher piano serves up an even brighter and more forward sound in the Op. 39 Waltzes, a sound that Rittner stresses in his playing. It may seem a little too forceful—even bumptious here and there—to some listeners. Then again, it may suggest an alternative way of hearing these works that will be thrice familiar to most piano enthusiasts. Incidentally, this model Streicher was the one Brahms owned and used until his death. So perhaps the sound that Rittner draws from the instrument is close to what Brahms envisioned for these pieces. The pianist tends to emphasize the large difference in character from one piece to the other—from the fiery, Hungarian rhythms of No. 14 to the sweet-natured lilt of No. 15, the universal favorite. And always, Rittner’s approach emphasizes the dance form behind Brahms’s absolute music. In this, he’s aided by a piano that frankly sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place in a ballroom (a modest one): its powerful “voice” would certainly carry there.
Speaking of sound, the most startling may be that of the 1846 Ignaz Bösendorfer, heard in Brahms’s Opus 4 Scherzo. According to Rittner, it was Liszt’s favored instrument because of its “robustness and stability.” Yes, I can see—and hear—old Franz flying over its keyboard in his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Like a lot of pianos from that period, the Bösendorfer seems top-heavy and somewhat clattery, and this gives Brahms’s scherzo a Mendelssohnian lightness that you don’t usually associate with Brahms. But then the piece was written in 1851, when Brahms was a mere lad of eighteen and Mendelssohn had been dead a scant three years. So maybe the association isn’t out of place. (Certainly the piece has more than an accidental resemblance to the Chopin Scherzi.) It has an especially youthful spontaneity and vigor in Rittner’s animated performance.
So even if this isn’t the way you choose always—or even often—to hear Brahms’s piano music, Vol. 4 in Rittner’s series should open your ears to new interpretive possibilities conveyed through the sounds of instruments the composer himself might have played. As always, those sounds are beautifully captured by the MD&G engineers, at the Mozartsaal der Irnberger Foundation in Salzburg.