Johannes Brahms: Handel Variations

Cynthia Raim, piano (Connoisseur CD 4266)

February 2010


It is raining today. The sky is gray and close about the canopy of trees and telephone wires. I imagine myself walking down Genesee Street in Utica on a balmy summer day in 2006. I hear piano music as I approach the First Presbyterian Church and I enter unnoticed. A recording session is going on, here, in this unlikely town in upstate New York. This is exciting. Music I love. And the pianist, the pianist is wonderful. I stand like a man before a sparkling fountain who didn't even realize he was thirsty. Ever so gently I am drawn into a world where culture – the “c” word – is the center of activity, the raison d'etre of human society. (Perhaps such a fantastic speculation is partly a result of not reading newspapers or watching television?)

In addition to the Handel Variations (Opus 24) this disc includes the eight Klavierstueke (Opus 76) and three late Intermezzi (Opus 117). These pieces cover a wide range of Brahms's sensibilities, from the heroic and prolific, to the lushly romantic and passionate. I've already spoken of my admiration of Ms Cynthia Raim in a previous Stereotimes review of her two-disc set of Robert Schumann (Connoisseur CD 4256). And as was the case with those CDs, I have been listening to this one over and over. For days I had been thinking about doing a review, pondering the insight and sensitivity she brings to this music, but what got me out of the sweet spot and in front of the computer was paying close attention Ms Raim's absolutely beautiful, caressing, intelligent tone. If you will pardon a brief reminiscence, there was a time early in my adult life I dreamt of becoming a good pianist, as if practicing six hours a day could overcome aging nerves and lack of talent. My friend, who had trained at Juilliard, agreed to give me occasional lessons and I remember talking with him about tone one afternoon. Pressing a single note on the keyboard he was able to create a beauty of tone impossible for me to approach. All trained classical pianists can do this, more or less. But not all trained pianists are fine musicians. And few do it as well as Ms Raim. In this performance, as in the Schumann, she is not simply playing, she is listening, and has listened again and again to reach the heart of the music. And as I've said before, women pianists bring a special sensibility to music. And to be sure not all pianists teach me about the music, delve into its unique language with care and delicacy and intelligence, but women pianists often have.

There are dozens of recordings of the Handel Variations in the catalog. I own a mere three, by Anton Kuerti, Idil Biret and Julius Katchen (whom some cognoscenti regard is the definitive interpreter of Brahms). It would be a simple matter for me to rank these three in terms of their pianism, their creativity, their comprehension of the music. And if I had to pick one of the three to take for a prolonged stay on a desert island, there'd be no contest (Katchen). Until now.

It is perhaps not all that surprising, given the intense emotions of many of the Piano Pieces and Intermezzi (one cannot help wondering about their probable allusions to Clara Schumann), that Ms Raim performs this music beautifully. But the Handel Variations is an exuberant and prolific work by a young composer aware of the power of his genius, and aware as well of the shadow of Beethoven that stretched across European music throughout the Nineteenth Century. Ms Raim is fully capable of the “masculine” demands of this music, and she also brings a unique sensitivity to the inner dialogue. This is literally true. Take, for example, Variation 25: she brings out an inner voice like a clarion, a voice I've never heard before. Thanks to Mr Raim, I've learnt things about the Handel Variations that a life time's listening has never before revealed. Like her Schumann, this recording is a treasure. Unfortunately, Connoisseur issued only this one disc. It would have been marvelous if this release included the Third Sonata, the Schumann and Paganini variations.