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In parallel with Barry Douglas’ fine survey for Chandos, Jonathan Plowright has been setting down his own complete Brahms cycle for BIS. Douglas purposefully mixed individual items from different collections into what amounts to personal playlists – very convincingly, it must be said; Plowright, on the other hand, adopts the conventional approach of complete works, sets/opus numbers. It is the only straightforward aspect of his presentation of these marvellous works: let’s be clear, this is a magisterially performed and revelatory programme, comprising one early, one middle-period and one late set framed by the two books of the 1863 Paganini Variations.

Earlier instalments in Plowright’s series, the first of which was released back in 2012, have all garnered considerable and consistent acclaim. Volume 4 once again demonstrates his fluency of interpretation and command of the keyboard. The clarity and finesse of Plowright’s playing and sureness of touch matches his insights into Brahms’ style. Or styles, I should say, since his way with the early Ballades is as acute and compelling as in the Two Rhapsodies Op 79 and Four Pieces Op 119. The key to his vision of these works is that they are integral compositions, and to attain Brahms’ intentions one should play them as such; thus the Four Ballades are not separate works (as Chopin’s are), likewise the Four Pieces.

I do not recall when I enjoyed any Brahms programme more. This is the new benchmark survey for Brahms as Paul Lewis’ is for the Beethoven Sonatas. I cannot recommend this more highly.

GUY RICKARDS Read the full review on Agora Classica


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