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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

Piano Music

  • Johannes Brahms:
  • Ballades Op. 10 (1854)
  • Variations on a Theme by Paganini Op. 35 (1863)
  • Franz Liszt: Paganini Étude #2 in E Flat Major (1851)
Earl Wild, piano
Vanguard Classics OVC4034 ADD Time: 49:15
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The promise of Earl Wild's Liszt should be incentive enough to hear this recital. The transcription of the 17th Caprice is a dervish in Wild's hands; there's more than a gleam of insouciance in the way that he polishes off the cascades of notes. Like Richter's Feux follets, it needs to be heard to be comprehended.

Wild has almost too much temperament for Brahms. He hurries through the climax of the first Ballade with a passion better suited to romance than tragedy. The skittish third Ballade, with its strident contrasts, is much more persuasive - one of the best I have heard.

The featured "Paganini" Variations, dating from 1862-3, take the 24th Caprice for their theme. The work is cast in two books, each presenting the theme followed by fourteen variations. The idea - take the Italian master's theme and exploit it in nefariously technical ways - is not a new one, but it only sounds hackneyed in the hands of a lesser composer. Wild's sparing use of pedal and lightning articulation illuminate the nether regions of the crab-like score. It's a fiery, galvanizing performance (hear the coda of Book I) without the misplaced passion of the "Edward" Ballade.

Vanguard's recording preserves most of the piano's dynamic range, betrayed only by some fuzziness in the treble. The thorough annotations are in small, small print.

Copyright © 2000, Joe Sullivan