Vier Klavierstücke (Four Piano Pieces), op. 119

October 4, 2015 – Richard Goode, piano

Brahms began composing his Opus 119 Piano Pieces before completing the Opus 118 collection and published both sets in 1893. The Opus 119 pieces continue in the same predominantly introspective vein, except for the concluding Rhapsody of Opus 119, which ends Brahms’s solo piano output in heroic style. (Only the 51 Übungen, or Exercises, compiled over many years, were published later.) The three opening pieces of Opus 119 are titled “Intermezzo,” Brahms’s favored designation for a wide range of late piano pieces (see Opus 118 above).

The first Intermezzo of Opus 119 is well-known for its characteristic falling thirds, which give it the resigned quality so often associated with Brahms’s works. The Andante of the F minor Two-Piano Sonata, op. 34b, the opening of the Fourth Symphony, and the Four Serious Songs provide notable examples of this characteristic. Brahms gave the first Intermezzo to Clara Schumann as a birthday present in 1893, though it actually marked his birthday by the time he sent it to her. He wrote:

I am tempted to have a short piece of music copied for you, as I should very much like to know how you get on with it. It teems with discords. . . . It is exceptionally melancholy, and to say “to be played very slowly” is not sufficient. Every bar and every note must be played as if ritardando were indicated, and one wished to draw the melancholy out of each one of them, and voluptuous joy and comfort out of the discords. My God, how this description will whet your appetite!

Clara wrote that “one actually revels in the discords” and also called the Intermezzo “a grey pearl. Do you know them? They look as if they were veiled, and are very precious.”

Brahms also used the title “Intermezzo” for the second piece, an agitated piece in E minor that ingeniously employs the variation form. The central “waltz” section in E major provides a wonderful contrast, though it too is a variation. A wisp of the waltz returns at the close.

The following quicksilver Intermezzo features the melody at the outset in the lower part of the right hand. Its scherzando character as abetted by the shifting melodic accents.

The ebullient E-flat Rhapsody, probably not the last of the pieces in order of composition, is notable for its five-bar phrases, which Clara characterized as “Hungarian.” At the center occurs a lyrical section in A-flat major—perhaps suggesting the salon or café in its arpeggiations and grace notes—that is led up to and away from by a C minor/C major triplet idea. The following occurrence of the main theme is cleverly presented in a hushed staccato variation, lending all the more force to its return in its original guise at the close.

This Rhapsody belongs to a small but significant group of works that open heroically in the major but close dramatically and darkly in the minor. Other notable such pieces include Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony and Brahms’s B major Trio. Brahms’s Rhapsody, however, accomplishes this unusual twist in one movement, thereby joining an even more select niche of the repertoire—Schubert’s E-flat Impromptu, op. 90, no. 2 is one of the few other such works that immediately comes to mind.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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