BRAHMS 11 Chorale Preludes: Nos. 5, 6, 9, 10, 11 (arr. for piano by Nada). Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Books 1 and 2. Gavotte by Gluck (arr. for piano). Etudes: No. 2 in C (after Rondo by Weber); No. 4 (after Bach’s Presto). Sarabande in a. Gigue in a. 6 Piano Pieces, op. 118. Hungarian Dances: Nos. 4, 6–10. Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. 7 Fantasies, op. 116. Piano Sonata No. 3 in f • Nada (pn) • MEII ENTERPRISES no catalog number (3 CDs: 216:25)
With this three-CD set, Nada completes her traversal of Brahms’s works for solo piano two hands, supplemented by the 11 Chorale Preludes, the composer’s final opus, originally composed for organ, which Nada performs in piano transcriptions, a number of which are her own. All told, there are five volumes and a total of eight discs. The first to be released appeared in 2016 and was titled Nada in Hamburg with Johannes Brahms. One would assume from the title that the disc contained the composer’s earliest works for piano, given that Brahms was born in Hamburg and spent his formative years there, up until the time he was 20. But Nada’s approach to programming has not been a chronological one; she likes to mix things up, which I’ll have more to say about further on.
Her next two albums, titled, Vienna: Brahms and Nada, and Nada Meets Johannes Brahms, were both received in 2017. Those first three albums were one disc apiece. In 2018, came Nada’s fourth volume, titled Capriccios & Intermezzos, Nada & Brahms, and it was a two-disc set. And finally, we have in hand her fifth and final volume, a three-disc set, simply titled Johannes Brahms. The previous volumes in this series have received broad coverage in these pages by Jacqueline Kharouf, Paul Orgel, and me. Additionally, Jacqueline interviewed Nada in 42:4 in connection with Capriccios & Intermezzos, and Nada is interviewed again in this issue by Martin Anderson.
In recent issues of the magazine, there have been a number of fairly large helpings of the composer’s piano music—I’m thinking of those served up by Craig Sheppard (see reviews in 42:2 and 44:5), and by Barry Douglas, the latter released on six individual discs over an extended period of time. Comparing Douglas’s effort to Nada’s, strictly for content, is a difficult task because both pianists take the same approach to organizing the layout of their programs. They mix works from different chronological periods and genres, and break up works that are part of an opus number group which are meant to be heard together. Take, for example, the Four Ballades, op. 10. In Douglas’s traversal of Brahms’s piano works, the Ballade No. 1 doesn’t show up until Volume 4. The Ballades Nos. 2 and 3 come on Volume 2, but separated on the disc by selections from the opp. 116–119 sets. The final Ballade, No. 4, is programmed on the first disc of the set.
I understand that the idea behind this helter-skelter approach is to create variety and the sort of well-rounded, satisfying programs that one would encounter in a “live” recital, but it can be frustrating for the at-home listener who expects to replay the discs more than once and must then fiddle with the programming buttons on his or her CD player to get the tracks into some semblance of proper musical order. Happily, Nada’s programming is nowhere nearly as contrarian as Douglas’s. She keeps the Four Ballades intact on the volume titled Nada Meets Johannes Brahms, and she maintains the integrity of the four sets of late piano pieces, opp. 116–119. But there are some anomalies in the ordering of her selections of the Hungarian Dances and of the 11 Chorale Preludes, the latter being spread across several of the eight discs.
Despite claims that Nada’s now completed Brahms project represents a comprehensive survey of the composer’s solo piano music for two hands, some things have either escaped her notice or have been purposely sidestepped. Among the latter are eight cadenzas Brahms composed for a number of concertos—one for Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052; two for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4; three for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17; and one each for Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos. 20 and 24. I would not expect even a complete survey of Brahms’s solo piano music, however, to include the cadenzas, since they are meant to function within the context of a larger concerted orchestral work and, as such, do not fall within the category of independent, standalone pieces.
In sifting through the contents of Barry Douglas’s set and comparing it to Nada’s, which wasn’t easy to do, in the former category—i.e., works that may have escaped Nada’s notice—I believe I came across at least two items in Douglas’s survey that do not appear to be included in Nada’s. They are the incomplete Rákóczy March, Anh 3/10 (1853?), and the Canon in F Minor, Anh 3/2 (1864?). Alternatively, I do not find anything in Nada’s survey that’s missing from Douglas’s, unless the 11 Chorale Preludes are to be counted, which needn’t be because one doesn’t find them among Brahms’s pieces for piano. Those who are completist sticklers, however, will find that the almost three-decades-old set by Martin Jones on Nimbus includes the Kleine Klavierstück in B♭ Major, Anh 3/4, which is not included by either Nada or Douglas. Jones, however, does not include the incomplete Rákóczy March, which Douglas does.
Is there hope for those who must have everything? The answer is yes, but only if they invest in the 16-disc İdil Biret Brahms Edition, which includes it all—the Rákóczy March, the Canon in F Minor, the Kleine Klavierstück in B♭ Major, the eight aforementioned cadenzas, and a number of other items which I don’t believe you will find in either Nada’s or Douglas’s surveys, or anyone else’s for that matter—for example, Brahms’s arrangement for piano of the Scherzo from Schumann’s Piano Quintet, Anh 1/7, the 51 Exercises, WoO 6, and four numbers Brahms transcribed for solo piano from his song cycle Die Schöne Magelone. In addition to all of that, you’ll get Brahms’s two piano concertos, his two cello sonatas, his Piano Quintet, piano reductions of his Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4, and a handful of other goodies. I believe the 16 discs that make up Biret’s set are—or at one time were—available individually, so if she is not necessarily your pianist of choice in Brahms’s two piano concertos, you may still be able to acquire the discs separately. My instincts tell me, however, that Brahms is not a composer who stimulates ravenous appetites for every last bit of juvenilia, minutiae, and his self-instruction exercises in counterpoint. Brahms is a composer we remember and love (or not) for his mature and large-scale works.
Those who have acquired one or all of Nada’s previous Brahms volumes know of the pianist’s strong, sustained, unfaltering, untiring technique, surely needed in the three massive early sonatas; her full-bodied tone, called for in works such as the two middle-period Rhapsodies; her intuitive sensitivity in the contemplative, inward-looking numbers in the four sets of late piano pieces; and her seemingly symbiotic connection to Brahms’s inner spiritual world in the Chorale Preludes. All of that is on display again in this final volume of Nada’s journey through the countless pages of Brahms’s music for solo piano. Her reading of the sprawling and technically daunting Third Sonata on disc three of this set is positively riveting and in passages expressing nobility, truly majestic. Her selection of Hungarian Dances can seduce with “come-hither” Gypsy allure and seethe with simmering passion. Nada’s way with Brahms’s Paganini Variations is the very definition of a “can-do” effort and attitude. Paganini himself would have been impressed, both with the composer’s masterful art and with Nada’s brilliant virtuosity. Her approach to the Seven Fantasies, op. 116, and the Six Piano Pieces, op. 118, is tender and touching in the intimate pieces, but she knows how to scowl and storm in the dramatic ones.
The Gavotte after Gluck, the Etude after Weber, and the Sarabande and Gigue are not necessarily all early works. The Gavotte, for example, dates from 1871, when Brahms was 38. But the Etude after Weber (in some sources it bears the title of Rondo) dates from 1852, the Sarabande, from 1854–55, and the Gigue, from 1855, come from the years of Brahms’s youth, when he was between 19 and 22. These “study” pieces my well have been composition exercises assigned to Brahms by his teacher, Edward Marxsen, with whom he studied from 1845 to 1848. They’re not without interest and a certain charm, but whether they hint at the great Classical-Romantic or Romantic-Classicist that Brahms would become is a matter of opinion. Be that as it may, Nada lavishes as much attention and artistry on them as she does everything else, and in her hands, they are fashioned into beautiful, precious gems.
I cannot recommend Nada’s grand finale to her Brahms survey too highly. Anyone who loves Brahms should not be without this release to complement the previous volumes and conclude this remarkable project. Jerry Dubins