Piano Sonata No.2 in F sharp minor Op.2 [27:08]
Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor Op.5 [36:11]
Intermezzi from 6 Klavierstüke Op.118 [15:29]
Hélène Grimaud – piano
Regis RRC 1327 [78:55]
Don't be fooled by the low opus numbers on these Sonatas, they are both mature and sophisticated works, even if they are amongst the composer's earliest. The attitude towards Beethoven that underpins Brahms' Symphonies is already very much in evidence here, and the music gives us a picture of a composer intent on continuing where his hero left off. The links to Beethoven's middle and late sonatas are everywhere apparent, occasionally verging on pastiche. At the opening of the second movement of the Third Sonata, you could be forgiven for thinking you are listening to the Pathetique. But there is also a muscularity about this music that is distinctively Brahms; densely voiced chords hammered out and fully exploiting the dramatic potential of the more powerful instruments available by the mid 19th century.
So far as I can tell about the history of these recordings (there is no mention of it on the box) they are reissues of Denon releases from the late 1980s. Like Brahms himself, Hélène Grimaud was evidently had a precocious talent, producing impressively mature interpretations while still only in her mid 20s. The amount of physical energy these works require is phenomenal, but she always seems to have the necessary power in reserve. It is not all 2nd Piano Concerto type bombast, of course, and her performance also contains moments of real delicacy. One problem about Brahms' piano writing, and it is something he never really solved, is the conflict between dense chord voicing and lyrical melodic lines in his quieter movements. Grimaud's approach is usually to exaggerate the legato in order to let those dense harmonies flow into each other.
The audio quality is acceptable but it shows its age. All the detail is there, but there are a number of occasions where the sound quality is quite flat and uninvolving, a real shame given the quality of the performances. The bass end of the piano is also poorly represented in the mix. I don't think that is Grimaud's fault, you always get the impression that she is working those thundering bass lines for all they are worth, but also that it is happening at some distance from the listener.
If I've a major grumble about this release, it is the packaging. As I say, there is no information given about the date or location of the recordings, nor of the engineers or label involved in making it. And to release a recording of Hélène Grimaud without a photograph of her handsome features on the cover is surely a wasted marketing opportunity. Still, we are in the realm of super-budget reissues here, so it is probably as well to concentrate on the content and not worry too much about the lack of frills.
In sum, then, a valuable addition to anybody's Brahms collection. These early works demonstrate one of the most remarkable facets of his work; that despite being hugely prodigious, every single thing he wrote is of a high technical and artistic standard, even in his earliest years. And, while speculation is required about the exact date of the recording, it also demonstrates that the same is true of the pianist, one of the great Brahms interpreters of our time.