Alexandre Kantorow: Brahms review

Last year, Alexandre Kantorow released a recording including Brahms’s Piano Sonata No 2 alongside works by Bartók and Liszt, and announced himself as a Brahms interpreter of unusual insight and distinctiveness. This new all-Brahms disc follows on where that left off, with the four Ballades, Aan 10, the Piano Sonata No 3 and the composer’s left-hand-only piano arrangement of JS Bach’s violin Chaconne in D minor.

In the Ballades it’s the dark, gothic, almost supernatural side to the pieces that comes through especially strongly. Several times, Brahms sends the pianist’s left hand far down the keyboard, either echoing or working against a melody heard at a much higher pitch, and in Kantorow’s playing these bass-line mutterings come across as something unsettling, even subtly disruptive. In the loudest passages he makes the instrument ring, drawing the maximum resonance out of all those vibrating strings yet somehow still maintaining clarity and definition in each line. In the softest ones, his playing has a beguiling, sometimes dreamlike sweetness.

The first two movements of the sonata are whole worlds in themselves, and Kantorow’s interpretations reckon fully with their scope; his pacing of the shorter fifth movement rounds the work off in a way that’s completely convincing. His liking for spreading out chords from bottom to top might be a bit much for some listeners, especially when coupled with the way in which he creates a rhythmic tug back and forth between the playing of his right and left hands, making a tiny discrepancy in where the beat falls, but it’s all in the service of some wonderfully fluid and mercurially expressive playing.

After this, you might think a one-handed piece would be an anticlimax, but Brahms’s brilliantly realised arrangement of the Chaconne sounds powerful in its comparative austerity. Kantorow’s pause on the fulcrum chord when the music turns back into the minor key has the stark effect of leaching the major-key fullness and vibrancy from the sound. It’s a typically telling touch from a pianist with a real affinity for this composer.

French pianist Nicolas Horvath reveals (Grand Piano, two CDs) more of the music of Hélène de Montgeroult, the pianist, composer and teacher whose background influence on such seminal figures as Chopin and Schumann – and quite possibly Brahms – is only now being acknowledged. Horvath makes appealingly light work of her nine keyboard sonatas, several recorded for the first time.

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