Here is more evidence that Brahms never quite wrote any mediocre music. Well, actually he did ... but it was his practice to trash pieces that did not meet his exacting standards. And such standards show their value in such marvelously conceived works as these late piano pieces. Not everyone knows that Brahms was a bonafied virtuoso at the piano and wrote a large ouevre of high-quality music that falls neaty into three periods: the early Beethoven-like 'heroic' style, the middle focus on the variation form and the introspective late works. Arthur Rubinstein said of Brahms' music: "It is with the late piano works, Op. 116-119, that we reach Brahms' most personal music for his chosen instrument. Brahms in his final years produced serene and nostalgic music that was ever more inward in mood ... and as his own notations in the score indicate, they are so intensely intimate that one cannot really convey their full substance to a large audience. They should be heard quietly, in a small room, for they are actually works for chamber music for the piano."
The late piano works are well recorded in the catalog (Lupu, Katchen, Cliburn, Gilels, Gieseking, Argerich, Perahia) and this Philips' DUO recording is among the better ones as a whole. Certainly the star of the three pianists featured here is Stephen Kovacevich - a firery yet tender-hearted pianist best known for his stellar Beethoven. Given his stature, it is a bit disappointing that the entire two-CD's were not all his playing as he recorded all the featured late works here. But, I suppose it is always good to give lesser-famous talent a chance to shine and make themselves better known.
One of these talents is Adam Haraseiwicz who turns in a crisp run at the Op. 35 "Paganini Variations" that has more of a cool, crisp precision than a red-hot flair to it - although a few pieces in the second book are especially impressive for their brilliant clarity. The theme was taken from Paganini's famous 24th Caprice in A-minor for solo violin. Kovacevich also performs the brilliant Op. 24 Variations equally admirably, evoking Handel's pomp-and-ceremony style with vigor. Both sets of variations are truly staturesque in the piano literature and reveal why Brahms was considered the greatest variationist since Beethoven.
The two Op. 79 Rhapsodies are dynamic concert showpieces with impassioned, chordal outer movements (marked "agitito" and "molto passioniato") surrounding an oasis of tender melody. No. 2 is one of Brahms' best-known piano works and a real crowd pleaser. These (along with the Op. 76 pieces) are given quite respectable readings by Dinorah Varsi, but their contrasting episodes of powerful virtuosity and tender lyricism are conveyed more effectively by the legendary Marth Argerich (Debut Recital, DG) or other pianists. But, the drama and mercurial brilliance in these pieces is so compelling that the pure music can override such aspects of performance.
But, the main event here are the four sets of Schumann-like piano "miniatures" performed by Stephen Kovacevich under various titles as Fantasies, Intermezzos, Ballades, Romance and Capriccios. In general they are of two moods: dramatic, romantic and virtuostic or slow, gentle and introspective. Some (like the E-flat Intermezzo Op. 117) reveal Brahms' equistite, tender-hearted talent for lullaby themes, where others (like the D-minor Capriccio Op. 116) harken to the dynamic flair of Scarlatti. All are masterful, and the gentle pieces are particularly beautiful. As in his Beethoven Sonatas, Kovacevich superbly expresses both sides of Brahms' moods. Most notably, his poetry and gentle expressivity in Op. 117 (three slow and lyrical pieces) and Op. 119 is among the finest recorded. And, as expected, he brings the needed "weight" to Brahms' most passionate utterences such as the powerfully chordal, Chabrier-like Rhapsody in E-flat, Op. 119.
Given such wonderous and consistent performances of Kovacevich here, it is disappointing that the sound quality is not as consistent. Both Op. 117 and Op. 119 (with the most beautiful slow movements) betray some unfortunate analog "hiss" that will be somewhat disturbing to expecially headphone listeners. In contrast, Op. 116 and 118 are much better, cleaner all-digital recordings. All others are "Digitalized by Bitstream" (Philips high-tech remastering technology) which must make some difference, but not enough in some spots. But, overall the sound is fairy bold and clear but with that typical circa-60's/70's inferior analog ambiance and extraneous "hiss." This is very typical of Philips' DUO sets by the way - they are usually "very good" but not the best in sound. But, I wouldn't let the sound stop you from getting this set.
Brahms' late music was a revelation to me for its inventiveness, quality and uncharacteristically intimate perspective. But, given that Brahms is one of the all-time masters of lyricism and sonority, this should be no surprise. While this set is inconsistent in both performers and sound quality, it still is a recommended set (also per Penguin Guide) - the least of the reasons being that is features all of Brahms' late piano music which is somewhat unique. If you are just starting to explore Brahms' piano music, the late works are the best place to start really. If you are looking ALL of Brahms' piano music, Julius Katchen's set is usually the most recommended but its sound is 60's vintage. Also, Radu Lupu's recordings are also a top choice for his equistite, poetic pianism that is most fitting to this music.