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Charles Owen offers penetrating insight into Brahms’ late piano music, caught in gloriously burnished sound. There is a bravery to Owen’s playing: he dares to allow the sixth of the Op 76 set to melt into our consciousness after the assertiveness of the close of Op 76/5, and he allows the fragility and silences of Op 116/4 their full due. Fully supported by Avie’s splendid recording, Brahms’ piano music glows. Owen performs miracles of textural lucidity, his tempos perfectly judged; but his highest achievement is to make the listener forget there is a middleman. It is almost as if Brahms speaks directly to us.

There is robust playing, too, in this predominantly crepuscular world: the second Ballade of Op 79 is muscular and powerful. Disc two presents the sets Opp 117-119. This represents complete immersion into the true atmosphere of late Brahms, and Owen sustains the composer’s complex thoughts superbly. Repeated listening yields further appreciation; initially Op 117/3 felt under- characterised, but repeated exposure reveals its depths. Opus 119 begins with the elusive, harmonically enigmatic Intermezzo in B minor, its gestures presented by Owen as droplets of rain; the final piece of Op 119, the Rhapsody in E-flat, is a glorious explosion of light. The six pieces of Op 118 present the most varied experience of all, from the explosive outpouring of the first through the Innigkeit of the A major Intermezzo to the glorious otherworld of the final E-flat minor, a route tracked perfectly by Owen.

The fascinating booklet notes are built around an interview with Owen. Competition is, of course, huge, with the likes of Angelich, Perahia and Gilels, but Owen has much to say, and does so in fabulous sound.

COLIN CLARKE Read the full review on Agora Classica


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