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Album review: Peter Longworth, Johannes Brahms and the art of making difficult sound easy

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peterWe hear the orchestral music of Johannes Brahms all the time. The master German composer of the late 19th century also wrote masterful piano music, but we don’t hear it that much.  A lot of it is technically easy, so that’s not the problem. The issue is finding a way to make the music speak clearly.

Peter Longworth is, I would like to argue, Toronto’s most accomplished collaborative pianist right now. It sometimes looks like there’s nothing he can’t do. So it’s particularly worth paying attention to his first solo album.

Here is Longworth stepping out of the background to say, here I am. And what does he choose? Some of the most musically challenging solo piano repertoire he could have laid his hands on.

BrahmsCDHe is launching the new disc on the small-independent Azica label on Monday evening. And if you love late-Romantic piano music, it is worth several careful listens.

The album features three sets of pieces, the eight Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces) of Op. 76, the seven Fantasien (Fantasies) of Op. 116 and the Op. 117 Drei Intermezzi (Three Intermezzos).

This is not virtuosic music. Little of it sparkles. Much of it mucks about in the resonant bass range of a concert grand piano. The pieces tend to alternate between moderate extroversion (usually of an angsty sort) and noodly, quiet brooding.

This is music for a darkened drawing room, a roaring fire and some nicely aged single-malt Scotch.

Like that Scotch, each one of these pieces makes a strong initial impression followed by several layers of revelation and meaning afterwards.

I’ve spent nearly a month savouring Longworth’s interpretations, for which my admiration keeps growing.

As is the case with J.S. Bach, a keyboard player can spend a lifetime trying to make sense of Brahms’ writing. The complexities are huge: sets of two notes in one hand have to play along with three notes in the other; musical motifs appear in staggered forms, one sliding diagonally under the other, creating all sorts of harmonic and rhythmic tensions in the process; musical ideas end in repeated false conclusions, setting up all sorts of tensions in the narrative itself.

Yet, while all of this is going on, the pianist has to make it sound as straightforward as, say, a Chopin Mazurka — a very dense, stubborn Mazurka.

Because this isn’t show music, most would-be interpreters shrug their shoulders at the prospect of uncertain returns for so much effort and move on to something else.

Those pianists who do make the effort come up with vastly different results that say as much about their own character and show personalities as about Brahms himself.

Young Italian Alessio Bax recently released a solo-Brahms album that also includes the Op. 76 pieces, shaping them with a stunning force of will (you can read my review here).

Longworth, steeped in the art of collaboration, sets himself up as the composer’s partner. For more than an hour, Longworth’s Brahms emerges in a wondrous, unforced stream. Even the harder-charging pieces have a special integrity. There is no note, phrase, rhythm or subtle change of pace or breathing that’s unaccounted for here.

I highly recommend this album. And, if you’ve never considered listening to the solo piano music from Brahms’s early and late middle age, this might be just the key to unlock a word of new wonders.

You can find out a bit more about the album, which was recorded at Koerner Hall, here.

The official launch is at Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu (on the north side of Davenport, just east of Avenue Rd) on Monday at 6 p.m. It’s not a big space, so it would be best to reserve a free spot here.


You can catch Longworth live — in collaborative mode — at the next Talisker Players‘ programme, on Tuesday and Wednesday next week, and as accompanist to soprano Melanie Conly and mezzo Anita Krause at a Syrinx Concert at Heliconian Hall on March 10.

John Terauds



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