The first thing to say about the first instalment in Barry Douglas’ new Brahms series for Chandos is that the programming alone makes it one the most engaging Complete Works piano discs you could hope to own. Douglas, rather than grouping pieces in their entire published sets as is the recording norm, has instead chosen to mix things up. So, an intermezzo from one book might sit next to a capriccio from another. Where pieces from the same set do make it onto this disc, such as the two Opus 79 Rhapsodies, they're split apart. The result is a massively engaging running order.
Topped and tailed with concert platform panache by the Rhapsody Op.79 No.1 and the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel (Op.24), the middle meat of the disc contains more reflective representations ranging from Opus 10, composed as a 21-year-old, through to three of the mature sets, Opuses 116, 117, 118, published near the end of his life. The ear is naturally led to compare and contrast the enormous breath of musical thought and style that spans Brahms' career.
Getting down to the playing itself, these are interpretations that feel as if they get right to the heart of Brahms the man and the musician with the impression they weave of Romantic expression melded with deference to classical form and sensibilities. From the introspection of Intermezzo Op.118 No.2 with its gorgeous washes of sound, to the crisp, virtuosic homage to past masters that is the ‘Handel Variations’, his articulation is deft and colourful, and his overall style expansive. The multifarious strands of Brahms' dense, complex and contrapuntal writing are beautifully balanced, with a sure structural grasp that carries the ear and sustains the musical argument equally convincingly across individual phrases and long, multi-sectioned pieces. (Charlotte Gardner / BBC Music)