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Each of Brahms’ final four sets of piano pieces, all composed in 1892 and published as Opp 116-9, make a self-contained group, and have mostly been performed and recorded as such. However, the thematic and expressive interconnections between the 20 component capriccios, intermezzi (of which there are 14 examples alone), a ballade, a rhapsody and a romance – with a combined running time of around 75 minutes – make them an obvious and cohesive collection for CD. There are several recordings of all four opus numbers to confirm its viability, so I am bemused at why Ohlsson replaces the culminating Four Pieces Op 119, with Brahms’ earliest sanctioned published work, the Scherzo in E-flat minor. This last’s inclusion completely breaks the valedictory mood of the preceding hour’s music, especially in what is a somewhat heavy-handed and slow account: not the slowest, by any means, but compared with, for example, Melnikov on Harmonia Mundi or Plowright on BIS, Ohlsson seems leaden.

Matters are better in the later pieces, yet here again there is a want of subtlety and finesse in the playing, especially when set against the finest exponents of late Brahms, of which there are quite a few. The set that comes off best is the Seven Fantasias, where the three Capriccios do at least sound wilful. However, Ohlsson’s interpretations are not very involving compared with Plowright’s; and there is little magic in the softer intermezzi, both here and in Opp 117-8. Compare the latter with Arcadi Volodos (Sony Classical 8887513019) and the difference in quality is marked, with little of the cultured playing and insight that the Russian brings to this music. Hyperion’s sound is clear and resonant.

GUY RICKARDS Read the full review on Agora Classica


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