Pianist Anton Kuerti was born in Austria, grew up in the USA, and has lived in Canada for the last thirty-five years. His teachers included Arthur Loesser, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and Rudolf Serkin. At [...]
They spoke about it
Analekta presents a new edition of the Brahms Piano Concertos performed by Anton Kuerti and the Orchestre Métropolitain. The most beautiful Brahms’ Piano Solo Piano Works complete this new edition. Brahms was one of the few masters equally at home with immense musical structures, such as the Piano Concertos, and with short miniatures, like the Capriccii and Intermezzi featured in this set.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
The Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 is the crowning accomplishment of Brahms’ early years. While its stirring, genial nature is today undisputed, it was a failure at its first performances in 1859. One might speculate that this must have been due to poor performances, were it not that the great violinist and friend of Brahms, Joseph Joachim conducted, with the composer as soloist, and that Brahms wrote that he had played well, and praised the orchestra…
One reason the concerto failed to impress could be that no piano brilliant enough to allow the soloist to be prominently heard over the orchestra had yet been built. Indeed, the massive, symphonic character of the orchestral writing, essential to the work’s diabolical, stormy nature, is hard for the soloist to penetrate even on today’s best instruments. In any event, Brahms did not lose faith in his creation, but did see fit to make numerous changes.
The Concerto had started its career as a sonata for 2 pianos in 1854, shortly after Brahms had been launched by the legendary and prophetic praise Schumann had bestowed on him, anointing him as “the chosen one who would bring to life, in the most ideal manner, the highest expression of his era.” The Concerto passed through an intermediate stage in its life-cycle as a symphony, before finally becoming the glorious concerto that it is.
The ominous, almost unbearable tension of the concerto’s long opening tutti is sustained, in part, by the fact that this D minor concerto has no prominent D minor chord until the piano entrance, almost one fifth of the way through the movement. The threatening tympani rolls, the angular, violent leaps, and the screaming trills and tremolos create a level of musical turmoil never before reached. The piano participates to some extent in this onslaught, especially in the recapitulation, where it not only steals the opening motive from the orchestra, which had monopolized it until then, but gives it a stupendous mutation by giving it an unexpected and thrilling new harmony. On the whole, though, the soloist concentrates on the many soulful and warmly lyrical elements in the movement.
The Adagio was reworked by Brahms from an unpublished mass, and may have been conceived as a memorial to Schumann, who died in 1856. Introspective thoughtfulness and fond remembrance could hardly be better expressed than in the serene and wholesome step-wise flow of this movement; rarely have bassoons, who have a leading role, been made to sound so reverent! Some of the slow movement’s touching sweetness comes from the direct juxtaposition of its D major tonality, which so effectively melts the gruff menace of its D minor neighbours.
The last movement reaps the best of both of these worlds, starting quite aggressively with its incisive rhythm and hustling bass line. The first episode turns to F major, with a soaring, very Schumannesque piano tune, while the second features a rising harmonious arpeggio motive in the strings. This motive is later extended, using the bass line of the opening theme, to become a short but haunting fugato. Following the diminution of this theme (i.e., doubling its apparent speed), an enchanting transformation of the opening theme is given by the piano, high in the treble, and in major!—quite unexpected in the severe context the theme had previously displayed.
But the troubled mood is not yet permanently dispelled; on the contrary, the first episode now returns in minor, quite agitated, and leads to a dramatic cadenza. Starting bitterly, it gradually becomes ecstatic and leads us to the coda, which now remains in D major, at first reflectively and poignantly, and eventually building up to a heroic, exultant finish.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83
Even more massive than its antecedent, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83, stretches the conventional frame of the piano concerto to its limits. Some have contended that this is indeed a symphony with piano obbligato, but in fact, the piano plays just as dominant a role as in the D minor Concerto, playing unaccompanied or just marginally accompanied for more than one third of the work’s duration. The role of the soloist has not diminished, but the orchestra has indeed become highly symphonic in character, contributing more colour and character, and challenging the supremacy of the soloist more boldly.
Brahms was almost compulsive in exploiting fully and frugally the potential of each and every scrap of motive. One wonders how the composer could maintain his high level of inspiration while manipulating every motivic fragment so exhaustively. It is hard to deny that this intricate cleverness in construction can occasionally create a somewhat artificial academic character, which is however usually so much in the shadow of the music’s strong emotional currents that it passes without unduly distracting us.
The second movement, which Brahms once jokingly referred to as “a very small little scherzo” is in fact a full-blooded movement of enormous intensity, which attempts to rival or even surpass the drama of the first movement. Is the D minor tonality a silent salute to the first Concerto, or does that key just naturally imply storm and passion for Brahms? As in the D minor Concerto, the contrast with D major, heard here in the raucously exuberant middle section, is a dominating feature of the scherzo.
The slow movement also shares some characteristics with the first concerto, namely its unusual 6/4 meter and the smoothly descending lower cello line. Above this the theme itself is a splendid solo for the first cellist, an extended tender song of love. When the piano finally comes in, as in the first movement, it embarks on a cadenza, very improvisatory in character, and only distantly related to the main theme. It remains utterly sweet and dreamy until the last few bars, where it swells to a grandiose and serious climax that sets off an impassioned development of the main theme, the piano proclaiming it in diminution and interspersed with trills and swirling flourishes.
After the driven, tumultuous character of the two opening movements, it would be futile to compete by creating yet another ferocious movement, so Brahms presents us with an “Allegretto grazioso” rondo. Note that it is grazioso, not scherzando, which allows the delicate humour of its opening theme to remain aristocratic and tender, about as close to the “Gemuetlichkeit” spirit of his adopted Vienna as Brahms ever gets. This of course does not pervade the whole movement, which has excitement and even an occasional bit of bombast. Two episodes travel east of Vienna to enjoy a distinctly Hungarian flavour, but without the banality that some of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances display.
Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76
Brahms was one of the few masters equally at home with immense musical structures, such as the Piano Concertos, and with short miniatures, like the Capriccii and Intermezzi featured in this set. If the former, achieved with much self-critical struggle and countless revisions, are more monumental and awe-inspiring, the latter are more spontaneous, simple and natural. In these he shares his deep emotions and vast experience in an intimate and unpretentious setting, in which there is no room nor need for any artificial engineering or padding that some listeners detect on occasion in Brahms’ large scale works.
It is curious that the dimensions of Brahms’ piano works got steadily slimmer over the course of his career. The three huge piano sonatas written while he was still in his teens were followed by the splendid extended sets of variations written a decade or so later, but after these he abstained from writing piano works for almost 15 years.
When he did start composing solo piano works again he devoted himself exclusively to sets of short pieces, in which one can feel the distilled wisdom and devotion of the composer. Op. 76 is the first of these, and it combines in a special manner the passion and drive of his earlier period with the introspection and resignation of the later works. Why he calls some of them Capriccii and others Intermezzi is unclear, for some of the former, like No. 1 and No. 5, are highly intense and tragic, without any hint of playfulness, while some of the latter, like No. 4 and No. 7, do have a capricious element to them. It may be a question of length, for the Intermezzi are the shorter works.
Rhapsodies Opus 79
The two Rhapsodies Opus 79 are almost unique in Brahms’s oeuvre in that they are neither full-length works like the Piano Sonatas or the sets of Variations, nor are they miniatures like those in Op. 76, which could hardly be programmed without including a number of their siblings, if not the entire Opus group. These are robust, extended pieces that have become favourites of teachers and students.
Intermezzi Op. 117
In maximal contrast to the piano concerti, the Intermezzi Op. 117 emanate tender wisdom, calm resignation, and even a hint of exhaustion. Still in his fifties when he wrote them, Brahms was not yet an old man by modern standards, but his output was declining dramatically. Whereas until 1892 he produced an absolutely reliable four opus numbers a year, in his last 6 years only six further opus numbers were completed.
The Intermezzi Op. 117 are all in the simplest “ABA” form, but it is interesting to trace the varied ways in which Brahms, ever the clever and frugal architect, relates the middle sections to their envelopes.
Intermezzi Op. 119
Opus 119 is the last piano work written by Brahms, although piano is still involved in the Clarinet Sonatas Op. 120, and the “Vier ernste Gesänge” Op. 121. The first Intermezzo has a forlorn, introspective aura, as though watching life reluctantly from behind drawn curtains. The (not very) contrasting interludes seem to be a series of gentle sighs. Brahms’ favourite motive, the descending third, permeates this work. Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann when he sent her this piece, asking whether she felt it was too radically dissonant. Today these harmonies would be unlikely to raise any eyebrows.
The opening—and in effect the only—motive of the 2nd Intermezzo goes through one transformation after another, three different incarnations in the main part of the work; amazing how many moods can be created out of this simple pattern, without its sounding contrived! Even the middle section, in E major, is created out of exactly the same pattern of notes. There it climbs away from troubled pessimism for the first time in Op. 119, to create a loving, harmonious and lilting interlude.
The third Intermezzo is one of Brahms’ most charming, light-hearted romps, teasing and bubbling graciously from beginning to end. Only toward the end does it stray from this humour, introducing a splendidly warm, yearning feeling, which adds a whole new dimension to this short gem.
© Anton Kuerti