Fantasias (7) for piano, Op. 116
Pieces (4) for piano, Op. 119
Piano Sonata No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 2
These well-rendered traversals may strike the impetuous-minded as a bit finicky in places, but Ax convincingly wins you over with his self-effacing vision of the scores and his subtle gradations of dynamics, which combine to produce pianism of feeling and intellect, pianism that seduces the ear. His accounts of the G mnor Capriccio and E major Intermezzo from Op. 116, for instance, deftly catch the sensual side of the composer's muse. Had you thought the bearded bachelor Brahms musically devoid of sensuality? If so, this recital will surely change your mind. Ax, on the other hand, invests the E flat major Rhapsody with appropriate grace and grandeur, effectively clothing the notes with a majestic sonority rarely heard in other performances. He understands Brahms--understands the piano--in a way most other pianists don't. He's content to render the music beautifully and intelligently, always denying any urge to vent fits of egotism through cheap virtuosic pyrotechnics. Idil Biret (Naxos 8.550353) serves up a weightier, darker Brahms in her performances from Op. 116, while Stephen Kovacevich (Philips 411137-2) gives us propulsive but perhaps slightly overheated renderings of that set and of Op. 119 as well. Biret is weirdly fascinating and unafraid to take interpretive chances, sometimes though, as in her daringly unhurried performances of the D minor and G minor Capriccios, coming perilously close to going overboard. Kovacevich is brisker than either Ax or Biret and perhaps more dazzling, but falls a little short on poetry (compare his E minor Intermezzo with Ax's). Both Biret and Kovacevich are eminently recommendable, but are marginally outdistanced by Ax's more cultivated, more sensitive performances. In the Liszt- and Beethoven-flavored early Brahms sonata, Ax again displays his keen interpretive skills. He doesn't attempt to portray the work as something more than the youthful foray that it is. Not that he offers a condescending view of the piece, either: he milks it in earnest for its dramatic yield, making the best possible case for this lesser but thoroughly interesting piece. From the fiery Lisztian opening on through the masterful finale (the work's best movement) Ax holds you spellbound with his alluring tone and his all-encompassing but never fulsome technique. It is certainly a joy to hear one of the finest pianists before the public today in so interesting a Brahms program. Sony offers good sound, too, despite occasional background racket (Ax's pedaling?). Highly recommended.