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The official start of summer may be just around the corner, but this music is a mainline to fall. Not only did Brahms write his Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2 in the twilight of his career, but he paints it with muted colors and veiled light — that warm, horizontal glow that stretches out at the end of an autumn day.
Although Brahms was a formidable pianist, he's not interested in virtuosity here. Still, it's tricky to capture just the right tone. The music tenderly sways like a lullaby with a sophisticated web of hushed inner voices. All the more surprising, then, to find the Russian powerhouse pianist Arcadi Volodos taking on this delicate, inward-looking miniature.
Volodos has built a career on conquering the toughest, most finger-twisting repertoire, from mammoth Rachmaninoff concertos to flashy Horowitz transcriptions which he further tweaks just to make them more impossible. Hearing Volodos in concert, one observer noted, is like "watching lightning strike on command."
But here, with Brahms' soft-grained intimacy, the pianist caresses each note without sounding precious. His phrases, while slightly more expansive than usual, are not so much played as beautifully sung. The contrasting central section, in a minor key, offers a gentle tempest of apprehension until the aching opening theme mysteriously returns.
Brahms' style at this point in his career, the pianist notes in the album booklet, "was now uncommonly compact and at the same time supremely personal." Volodos adds that he finds it all very moving.
It's easy to agree, when the performance is this detailed, devoted and touched with poetry.