This collection of three discs concludes Nada Loutfi’s survey (on 8 CDs) of the complete solo piano music of Johannes Brahms. I have not heard any of the previous releases, but in their reviews, my Fanfare colleagues Jerry Dubins, Jacqueline Kharouf, and Paul Orgel were unstinting in their enthusiasm for Loutfi’s artistry and technique. Nada Loutfi, who bills herself as Pianist Nada, is a U.S. citizen of Lebanese/Hungarian descent. Loutfi survived the conflict in her native Beirut (her mother was killed by a mortar explosion) and went on to study at the Paris Conservatory, where she became the first woman of Middle Eastern birth to win First Prize. Loutfi has pursued a career as a concert artist, educator, and the host of her own radio series, The Classical Hour. In the three-disc set that is the subject of this review, Loutfi performs Brahms works that span the early Piano Sonata No. 3, op. 5 (1853), to his final composition, the Chorales for Organ, op. 122 (1896). But the structure of the recital, rather than charting a chronological progression, emphasizes a tradition that meant so much to Brahms, and one that he built upon in his own works. I did not read the liner notes prior to listening to this set. But after auditioning it, I was gratified to encounter this opening from Pianist Nada:
“Dear Herr Brahms:
As with Bach, you bring music to a complete summary of your time. The difference is in style; you are truly a Romantic. There is an expressive and individual message in your music.”
Brahms maintained a lifelong reverence for the music of J. S. Bach. The emotional connection between the composers is laid bare in an anecdote related by cellist Josef Gänsbacher, who visited Brahms after the death of his mother Christiane. Gänsbacher found Brahms seated at the keyboard, playing Bach’s music. Upon his friend’s arrival, Brahms continued to play. But as he did, Brahms spoke to Gänsbacher of his grief. All the while, tears streamed down Brahms’s face. Brahms’s identification with Bach may be found in such keyboard works as the op. 122 Chorales. And in his great Fourth Symphony, Brahms modified the final movement of Bach’s Chorale No. 150 (Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich) to serve as ground bass for the finale (Brahms had previously referred to the epic Chaconne from Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin, BWV 1004, as “one of the most incredible pieces of music. Using a single system … the man writes a whole world of the deepest and most powerful expression.”) I mention all of this because after listening to Pianist Nada’s recital, I came away profoundly impressed by the connection she establishes between these two seminal creative geniuses.
Part of that connection is emphasized by the flow of the recital. It proceeds as outlined in the headnote, with the following exceptions. The first disc opens with the Chorales, op. 122, Nos. 5, 9, and 10. Book 1 of the Paganini Variations follows. Disc 1 closes with the Hungarian Dances Nos. 7, 8, 9, and 10. Dances Nos. 4 and 6 open Disc 2, followed by the op. 122 Chorale, No. 6, and the second Book of the Paganini Variations. The entire recital concludes with the op. 122 Chorale No. 11. In other words, the spirt of Bach and the Baroque is a recurring Leitmotif throughout. That progression of repertoire is complemented by Pianist Nada’s approach to the various works. Her interpretations of Brahms are distinguished by an absence of bombast or excess. She plays with a beautiful tonal quality and a remarkable clarity of texture, enhanced by her restrained use of pedals. She also phrases with elegance, nobility, and above all, poetry. Her hushed lyricism and plasticity of phrasing in the radiant op. 118/2 Intermezzo is but one example of an artist inviting and compelling the audience to enter her (and Brahms’s) world. This level of imagination and care is evident throughout the recital. I do not mean to suggest that Pianist Nada’s Brahms lacks Romantic energy, excitement, or impact. Her performances of such works as the Paganini Variations, or the op. 5 Sonata, have the requisite fire and brio. But it is a view of Brahms’s Romanticism that draws upon a sense of proportion I think Bach would have recognized and embraced. On those terms, this is Brahms playing of an elevated and most gratifying level.