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Eight Pieces, Op. 76

October 14, 2018: Garrick Ohlsson, piano

During his stay in the lovely village of Pörtschach in the summer of 1879, Brahms worked diligently on his Violin Concerto, but he also returned to composing piano pieces, resulting in the Klavierstücke, op. 76. He had produced no piano works for public consumption in fifteen years, but had not abandoned his principal instrument completely as seen by the first of these pieces, which he had originally presented to Clara Schumann as a birthday present in 1871. Having permanently left behind the monumental sonatas and variation sets of his earlier period, he took up the thread of “miniatures,” begun with the Opus 10 Ballades and which would culminate in the late great piano pieces, opp. 116–119. He found such shorter pieces perfect for exploring a myriad of subtle textures and nuances of mood. And, as it turns out, he had not abandoned the variation techniques that fascinated him at all periods of his life—he had simply refined them.

The eight Klavierstücke, op. 76, are divided into two main types: the faster, more extroverted Capriccios—Nos. 1, 2, 5, and 8—and the slower, more introspective Intermezzos—Nos. 3, 4, 6, and 7. Brahms invented such a variety of characters within each type, however, that the designations remain only loose categorizations. The first Capriccio, in F-sharp minor, and the second, in B minor, for example, could hardly be more different. The first is a swirling, turbulent piece, whereas the famous second Capriccio presents a lighthearted, sometimes impish demeanor. Brahms’s friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg, from whom he frequently solicited opinions on his music, said the F-sharp minor Capriccio was her favorite, but she also loved playing the second.

Brahms employed slightly different forms for each of the eight pieces. They all, however, have to do with the alternation of two main sections and with the ingenious variation of a section when it returns. The first Capriccio contrasts the opening theme of yearning, wide-ranging figures with one in which a four-note figure recurs in many guises. In No. 2 the two basic themes alternate minor and major, but both are playful with enlivening grace notes and off-beat accents.

The first of the Intermezzos, No. 3 in A-flat major, gives the impression of a music box in its first and third sections by means of high range and staccato accompaniment; these sections alternate with more lush music that hints at Chopin. The Intermezzo in B-flat major, No. 4, presents an intricate texture somewhat reminiscent of Schumann, with each voice maintaining its own rhythmic pattern. Here Brahms offers a complete miniature sonata form.

The powerful Capriccio in C-sharp minor, No. 5, displays one of Brahms’s favorite rhythmic devices—the simultaneous use of 6/8 and 3/4 meter. The wonderful tension this creates is abetted by intense chromaticism. The second theme begins in a waiting pattern of repeated octaves, then bursts out in lively figuration.

The Intermezzo in A major, No. 6, again brings Schumann to mind with its many-layered texture; it too juxtaposes rhythmic patterns of twos and threes. The most striking feature of No. 7, the A minor Capriccio, is the chordal theme that frames the piece. The second section is notable for its insistent return to one note (G-sharp).

The set closes with a Capriccio of complex moods and textures—No. 8 in C major, which begins with a section of flowing eighth-note figuration, within which tied notes provide slight emphasis. The second, more chordal idea takes intriguing harmonic expeditions. Just when it seems the piece might conclude contemplatively, the coda gathers momentum for a forceful finish. Plagued by self-doubt, Brahms asked Clara Schumann if he should omit No. 8 from the publication. We can be grateful that she told him it was a great favorite of hers, perhaps saving the piece from banishment.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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