This is the final volume in Pianist Nada’s adventures in the music of Brahms, a composer who has always been at the center of this pianist’s activities ever since she heard a performance of the Deutsches Requiem that changed her life. It led to a moment of clarity, and the rest is history. While I have been aware of the previous volumes (and have reviewed them elsewhere), this three-disc collection is the one that sets the seal on her place in the pantheon of great Brahms interpreters.
One can hear echoes of Claudio Arrau in Nada’s Brahms, and if the recording had a little more depth, I suspect we would hear an even richer bass. But one type of depth that very much is here is an interpretative one. Punctuating the recital with Brahms’s Chorales, op. 122 (originally for organ, and arranged by Nada herself) is inspired, as it reminds us of the reflective side of Brahms that is perhaps a touch more severe than his normal “autumnal” adjective would allow. They have another resonance too: The final one is in F Major, the key of the Deutsches Requiem.
There is a consistency of thought that runs through the entire set which is significant as well, as it encompasses what many might consider “minor” works as well as the well-known ones. So while one can revel in the clarity of Nada’s Paganini Variations (both books), the same care results in an utterly charming Gluck Gavotte, for example. Nada approaches the sets of variations in an almost deconstructionist manner, and illuminates them in the process. The performances are very much supplemental to, say Perahia, Cliburn, Arrau (Handel Variations), or Arrau or Michelangeli in the Paganini Variations, but they have much on their side, not least an intellectual rigor and textural clarity that give Nada’s reading a real feeling of integrity.
The darkness of sound Nada finds in the F♯-Minor Hungarian Dance is remarkable in itself; another elevation of the so-called smaller piece to something greater. That performance initiates the second disc, which culminates with a fabulous performance of the Handel Variations, with the theme itself offering pause for thought. Pianist Nada delivers it an analogous way (simple, unadorned) to that she had accorded to, say, that Brahms/Gluck Gavotte, almost as if asking us: What would Brahms have done with those other smaller pieces had he taken them for a walk via a set of variations?
The late sets of Piano Pieces (opp. 118 and 116) find Nada in her element. The third disc, which houses op. 116 and the Third Sonata, reveals the stronger side of Nada (almost by definition with the sonata). The music-making is of the highest integrity here, with the rigor of op. 116 against the sheer grandeur of the op. 5 Sonata. Having lived with this set for some time now, Nada’s account of the Third Sonata has climbed its way towards the top of my preferred readings. That deconstructionist clarity serves the music well in the first movement (with Nada we hear how Modernist Brahms’s writing can be, just how daring), and she hits the interior world of the second movement (we can use the word “autumnal” now) squarely. After the edifice of the Third Sonata, that final Chorale takes us to other regions. Here, it is enigma that is writ large, and the mystery of Death, at that: “O Welt, ich muß dich lassen” (O World, I must leave you) is the Mahlerisch, haunting, text. It seems the perfect close, too, in terms of reflections on Nada’s pianism: unshowy, dedicated to the composer, often profound.
The booklet notes are by Nada and “by” Brahms himself (she has enjoyed a close telepathic link with the composer) since that Deutsches Requiem experience) and round out a most enjoyable set. Colin Clarke