Johannes Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 3, Handel Variations; Anton Kuerti, Piano

[ProPiano PPR224512]
Russell Lichter

August 2004


I'm sitting here shaking my head, wondering how in blazes I can begin to talk about Brahms's Third Piano Sonata? It’s a wonder to behold, bursting with exuberant intelligence and beauties of so many hues. It is a unique and luminous piece of music, but in the hands of Anton Kuerti, something truly wonderful takes place. It is as if you walked into your favorite restaurant anticipating a first-class meal, but instead you got a transcendent meal, food that turns the palate into a spiritual portal. In listening to Kuerti's playing, a door to the inner sanctum is opened to us. (Any of you who’ve not seen Gabriel Axel’s film of Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, please do so.)

A word about Brahms’ piano sonatas and me. It was not love at first hearing, but it surely was by the third pass. Now, I like Brahms’ sets of variations a lot, represented on this disc by the Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel, and it wouldn’t be out of line to suggest the Handel and Paganini variations have few peers and only one superior, Beethoven’s Diabellis. The Brahms variations are pretty friendly and accessible even on first audition. The sonatas, on the other hand, are more emotionally complex and intense, they take more work to understand, but the payoff in intimacy, intelligence and structure is well worth it. And the third piano sonata is not only the best of the three, it is not only one of Brahms’s greatest works, it is one of the greatest works of the 19th Century.

Another great performance of this sonata is Julius Katchen’s in, Brahm:Works for Solo Piano (London 455 247-2). Katchen, who tragically died of cancer at age 42, is not well known, but the cognoscenti consider him one of the great pianists of the 20th Century. The very same cognoscenti also consider Katchen a Brahms specialist. I have struggled to find words to compare his and Kuerti’s playing of the Brahms sonata. I hope I have succeeded in being comprehensible, and have avoided the most egregiously hackneyed phrases (which have, as George Orwell reminds us, usually lost all vigor, and sometimes all meaning).

Katchen is a ball of fire, passionate, emotional, and somewhat idiosyncratic, but obvious in his performance is the intelligence that was lavished on understanding this music. (This is not, in my opinion, commonly found in pianists, having much more to do with musicianship than technique. And profound musicianship is rare.) He knows this piece, root and branch, and he plays as if the stakes are high. It’s him and Brahms, they’re doing something very important, and you can come along if you wish. I think Brahms would find it a terrific performance, capturing an elaborate, complex poetic landscape.

Anton Kuerti’s performance has a very different quality, though here too we are treated to no mere pianist, but to a musician of a high order. Where there’s almost an emotionally haunted quality in Julius Katchen’s performance, Kuerti’s is clear eyed, with the eager objectivity of an explorer, an explorer who knows the terrain well, cherishes it, handles it with delicacy and wit, but loves watching closely in the expectation of discerning something new. It is journey of discovery, for us more than the pianist, that casts wonderful clarity on this amazingly structured music. I bet Brahms would like this one too.

However successful or unsuccessful these descriptions are is almost moot. The fact is these are CDs I would not be without. And to make myself perfectly clear: I do not pursue some notion of perfection. Great performances will differ, but they all teach us new things every time we hear them. It only remains to suggest, for those of you new to Brahms’s Third, that you begin with Anton Kuerti’s disc on ProPiano. It’s difficult, and usually silly, to generalize but I think most people would find Kuerti’s approach more readily accessible. And, if you find love the sonata, check out Julius Katchen’s recording on London. Then you shall have two new treasures for your classical collection.

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