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The 20 piano pieces Brahms wrote during his autumnal flowering offer a feast of rhythmic and harmonic ambiguity, and Stephen Hough celebrates it with flawless grace. The composer described the B minor Intermezzo of Op 119 as ‘exceptionally melancholy, and “to be played very slowly” isn’t saying enough. Every bar and every note must sound like a ritardando, as though one wanted to draw melancholy out of each and every one, with a voluptuousness and contentment derived from the aforementioned dissonances’. Hough’s performance of this piece would have delighted him, with its veiled mystery, exquisite poise, and its little ritardandi suggesting bated breath. Elsewhere, however, Hough is too emotionally restrained for my taste. ‘The cradle songs of my grief ’ was how Brahms described the Op 117 set: I want to have those pieces unashamedly heart-on-sleeve.

MICHAEL CHURCH Read the full review on Agora Classica

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