As you can observe in the heading, this is volume 21 of Tacet's massive Evgeni Koroliov series, which involves the music of various composers, including JS Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. His Bach interpretations in particular both in this series and in live performance have generally drawn extremely positive notice from critics. Moscow-born (1949), Hamburg-based, Evgeni Koroliov is better known in Europe than in the Americas, though many concertgoers across the globe remain unfamiliar with his excellent work. Here in the music of Brahms, he once again exhibits his considerable keyboard skills and insights.
To give you an idea of Koroliov's style, one clearly notices an especially serene and ponderous take on this music, which is not an unexpected interpretive approach in works of mostly tranquil and hushed character, and with all but a few having slower tempo markings. Koroliov might be compared with the somewhat measured Emanuel Ax (Sony Classical) who recorded seven of the nineteen Intermezzos. But an even better example would be Timothy Ehlen (Azica), a little known pianist who recorded fourteen of them. I reviewed his CD in 2018 quite favorably here. He too plays with tempos on the expansive side and chooses to point up the more serene and profound aspects of the music. I can say further that Koroliov could be considered quite the opposite of the much brisker Stephen Kovacevich (Philips), who makes an excellent case for his more driven approach in his selection of ten of the Intermezzos.
I've more than alluded to Brahms' tendency toward the serene and profound in this music, but I must also point out there's often a dark or disruptive undercurrent in some of these pieces. For instance, the Op. 10, No. 3, which you'll find in the composer's catalogue as the third of the four early Ballades, shows a churning, somewhat turbulent character in its opening, though it eventually settles into a more tranquil demeanor. It came as a bit of a surprise to me that in the opening moments Koroliov seems to link Brahms to Liszt, the first several measures played as if Brahms is all too aware of the opening of the 1853 Liszt B minor Sonata, then a very new piece which Brahms may or may not yet have heard: it was dedicated to Robert Schumann, Brahms' close friend, and a copy of the sonata was in the Schumann residence by May of 1854, the same year Brahms wrote this piece. In any event, I thoroughly love Koroliov's way with this piece, as he subtly evolves its agitated character into a hushed, more settled one. The Op. 76, No. 3 Intermezzo begins playfully, and Koroliov gives it a charm and almost childlike innocence that make the music most appealing. From this same set Koroliov nicely plays up the warmth of the lyrical No. 6, though I think he's a bit too slow in the ensuing Moderato semplice Intermezzo.
The A minor Intermezzo, Op. 116, No. 2, is almost static in its pacing here, yet Koroliov imparts a hypnotic quality to the music with deft use of the pedal: notes linger amid the clearly wrought lines as the music gently caresses the ear. Koroliov plays up the subdued aspects of the E major (Adagio), E minor (Andante) and E major (Andantino teneramente) Intermezzos that follow. Yet, for all their beauty and clarity the works might sound even more effective with less expansive pacing. Still, they are splendid performances.
All three Intermezzos in the Op. 117 set come across with much the same care in their clarity and overall phrasing. Thus, they are fine, maybe even excellent accounts, but I found myself wishing for a bit of a pickup in tempo, despite the beautiful playing throughout, especially in the middle section of the third Intermezzo (C-sharp minor).
In the Op. 118 Intermezzos Koroliov once again plays the music with exquisite attention to detail, dynamics, pedaling and virtually all other facets of phrasing. It's hard to find fault with any single performance once you accept his generally slower tempos. No. 1, in A minor, is nicely played alright, though less stormy than what one encounters in most other performances. That said, it still has enough energy and drive to convey its sense of agitation. Koroliov turns in a warm and utterly gorgeous account of the ensuing A major, one of Brahms' most poignant Intermezzos. No. 6, the fourth of the Intermezzos in this set, is in the rather rare key of E-flat minor, which I always associate with darker music—and dark it is here indeed, despite its mostly placid demeanor. Koroliov conveys its troubling music convincingly, but rightly finds bursts of sunlight in the middle section. The final three Intermezzos here, from Op. 119, are all well played, with the outstanding performance being the tempestuous No. 2, in E minor.
The sound reproduction on this Tacet CD set is excellent. I've already mentioned three other competing versions of these pieces—and they're all fine in their own way—but making comparisons is problematic because these and most other recordings of the Intermezzos that you encounter are selections from the nineteen coupled with other Brahms pieces. However, the late Luba Edlina has all the Intermezzos on a single Chandos CD and she is quite compelling, and her more centrist tempos clearly set her apart from Koroliov. Of course, other pianists like Idil Biret on Naxos have done them on large multi-disc sets in their surveys of Brahms' complete solo piano works.
Here's what this comes down to: this double-disc set contains eighty-one and a half minutes of music, which could fit on a single disc. I have several CDs holding more: I reviewed an 82:33 CD of the Mahler Ninth Symphony from Oehms Classics here to cite just one example. Although Tacet offers a discount, it isn't sizeable enough to compete with the Luba Edlina Chandos CD at the web retailers I checked. So price will be an issue for some readers. If it's not a concern for you, I must say Koroliov's performances are highly individual and eminently worth hearing.Robert Cummings