Johannes Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Paganini, opus 35
Robert Schumann: Six Etudes after Caprices by Paganini, opus 3 – Six Concert Etudes after Caprices by Paganini, opus 10
Joseph Moog (pianist)
Recording: SWR Studio, Kaiserslautern Germany (March 9-11, 2019) – 67’34
ONYX 4236 (Distributed by PIAS) – Booklet in English and German
Joseph Moog is the answer to the question, “With so many new trends in music performance and composition, does the younger generation care about the core repertoire of the classical tradition?”
Moog does care, and his devotion shines forth in a body of work by the 33-year-old pianist which focuses on the music many of us grew up on: the romantic and immediately post-romantic piano classics. Despite his relative youth, Moog has proven himself especially adroit at interpreting Brahms, a composer with a stodgy image, not entirely warranted. What the pianist lacks in flamboyance and theatrics he makes up for in introspective readings of rare insight. This grasp of substance, and the ability to communicate with intelligence and a delicacy of touch, is evident throughout his latest release of Variations on a Theme by Paganini, by Brahms and Schumann’s Etudes after Caprices by Paganini and Concert Etudes after Caprices by Paganini.
In their own lifetimes in the 19th century, the three aforementioned composers received widespread recognition and adulation, though in different ways. Paganini, who composed the themes of this album, was flashier in performance, while Schumann and Brahms kept a lower profile as they composed music of greater subtlety and complexity. One of the most fascinating tales surrounding composers of their era was the relationship among Schumann, his wife, Clara (also a first-rate pianist and composer), and the young Brahms. Schumann “discovered” Brahms (who associated with the talented couple for some time) and encouraged the development of the younger man’s compositional gifts. During this period, Brahms fell in love with Clara, who eventually gave birth to eight children, and, it is believed, remained faithful to Robert, even after her husband’s early death.
The interwoven threads of these relationships are mirrored in the skillfully developed works on this recording. Moog takes us through the familiar strains of Brahms’ Variations, opus 35 with sensitivity and old-world charm. Less widely performed, and of greater interest to this writer, are Schumann’s six études after Caprices by Paganini, opus 3, and six concert études after Caprices by Paganini, opus 10.
Moog’s expressive range is immediately discernible in the first Schumann étude. The pianist’s touch extends from a restrained Rameauvian quality in the third étude (an “Andante”) to a more playful but still subdued approach in the “n° 4 Allegro”. Each of these movements is a little over two minutes in length but offers a satisfying taste of good things to come. The arcs of sweeping 32nd notes in the fifth étude unfold with vision and resiliency. Moving into the concert étude series, a Chopinesque Etude n° 1, followed by a reflective “Lento”, slips into a racy “Vivace” in n° 3, full of Schumann’s edgy ornamentations and neurotic energy. The album ends on a quiet note: sostenuto – allegro.
The overall shape of the album offers a striking contrast between the two Germanic composers, with a strong, confident Brahms in the variations and a subtle undercurrent of mental unraveling in the études of Schumann. Moog’s fine sensitivity to these classic piano masterworks and to the art of piano performance in general make this an album worth listening to, and the pianist’s career a trajectory to follow.