Sechs Klavierstücke (Six Piano Pieces), op. 118
October 4, 2015 – Richard Goode, piano
In the four sets of piano pieces that appeared in 1892–93, opp. 116–119, Brahms took up the writing of “miniatures” that he had begun with the Ballades, op. 10, and the Piano Pieces, op. 76. The later pieces, particularly the intermezzos, which make up fourteen of the twenty pieces in these four sets, tend generally toward the introspective, though flashes of youthful exuberance flare up occasionally—in the outer sections of both the Ballade, op. 118, no. 3, and the Capriccio, op. 116, no. 7, for example. No precise chronology can be determined for these pieces, yet the structural economy and tendency toward harmonic and textural “impressionism” all point to Brahms’s late style.
Four of the six pieces in Opus 118 are labeled “intermezzo,” Brahms’s nonspecific designation that covers a fairly wide range, from the opening passionate, stormy Intermezzo (op. 118, no. 1) to the desolate, haunting tone picture of the last (no. 6). The first of these, laid out in two sections, each repeated, presents a recurring feature in Brahms’s works, namely a descending melodic shape. Many have associated the descending line, which recurs particularly in the late works, with resignation on the part of the composer. The closing Intermezzo in E-flat minor casts its tragic spell from the opening single-voice theme, fashioned from only three neighboring pitches. Its inward aspect gives no hint of the intensity of the climax in the middle section.
Similar in nature to the “cradle-song” intermezzos, op. 117, the serene, beautiful A major Intermezzo (no. 2), lies within the grasp of good amateur players, and hence is one of the best known of these pieces. Its more restless middle section, full of Brahms’s beloved three-against two rhythms, contains several well-integrated contrapuntal devices. Imitation between the two hands is also important in the quietly agitated F minor Intermezzo (no. 4), both in the opening section and in the chordal textures of the middle section.
The G minor Ballade (no. 3) provides contrast to all the other pieces in the set with its bold and lively spirit. One of its playful aspects is the brief recall of the opening theme in the “wrong” key (D-sharp minor) in the middle of the central section. The fifth piece, which Brahms labeled “Romanze,” again suggests a cradle song with its melodic directness and rocking chordal accompaniment; the impression continues in the middle section with its melodic decorations over a rocking repeated pattern in the bass. Brahms’s masterful variation techniques are apparent not only here, but in the elaborations of the basic material in the outer sections.
© Jane Vial Jaffe