Canadian pianist André Laplante is a firmly established virtuoso of the great romantic repertoire. He garnered international attention after winning prizes at the Geneva and Sydney International Piano [...]
They spoke about it
At the age of ten, Johannes played his first concert, a private affair, but didn’t perform on a public stage until his fifteenth year, by which time unrelieved poverty at home necessitated his Klavierspielend not just evenings but oftimes nights in the saloons and brothels along Hamburg’s notorious St. Pauli waterfront. Then, in 1849, Brahms met Eduard Reményi, a Hungarian violinist three years his senior, who had fled from the revolutions of 1848 in Central Europe to northwestern Germany. In 1849, they began a touring association that lasted into 1853. Not only did Reményi instill a lifelong fascination with “Hungarian” music (actually Verbunkos, popularized by gypsies, rather than echt Magyar), he introduced his younger colleague to the slightly older but already celebrated violinist, Joseph Joachim. When Reményi and Brahms parted ways after Weimar, following their famous meeting with Liszt that left Brahms musically unmoved, Joachim dispatched his new friend to Düsseldorf. There, on September 30, 1853, Brahms presented himself chez Schumann; the ensuing visit stimulated Robert to take up his pen for the first time in ten years. In an article (his last ever) for the November issue of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, he hailed Brahms as “a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes stood guard… one man who would show his mastery, not through a gradual process but, like Athene, sprung fully armed from the head of Zeus.” By year’s end, 20-year-old Brahms was famous wherever German was read or spoken.
If not quite the culmination of Brahms’ earliest creative period, the F-minor Sonata proved to be the climactic work for keyboard. In Op. 5, his one striking departure from sonata structure as Beethoven left it for Schubert and the legion who followed was a five-movement form, with a ruminative Intermezzo between the Scherzo third movement and Rondo finale. Not only that, the chief theme of this extra movement derives from the opening theme of his “official” slow movement. Brahms subtitled the latter “Backward Glance,” and underlined its introspection throughout with a drumbeat in the bass register. If this work seems a descendent of Beethoven (the Fifth Symphony, but especially the Hammerklavier Sonata), Brahms’ own voice declares hitself at once, for the duration.
The Op. 79 Rhapsodies were his largest solo works from 1871 through 1893 without rivaling the size of his three astonishing solo sonatas, composed before Brahms was legally an adult. But the Rhapsodies are plainly kindred despite their conciseness expressively passionate without restraint or surcease: passion, however, distilled by nearly 30 years of adulthood. On May 7, 1863, the august Singakademie elected him its new director; concurrently he began to give piano lessons, not because of financial need but out of kindness to petitioners. Among his first pupils was Elisabet von Stockhausen. He relished Elisabet’s youthful comeliness, her superlative cuisine, her scrupulous criticism of his music, and her coddling confidence. To this singular woman, after much cogitation, Brahms dedicated his Op. 79 Rhapsodies. Almost everyone who has written about them has remarked on the oxymoron of such structurally formal music (in sonata-form) being called Rhapsodies. Ivor Key, in his Johannes Brahms is right on target when he writes that the Rhapsodies, Op. 79, “deploy a grand passion with no punches pulled.”
© Roger Dettmer