BRAHMS: Complete Piano Music Vol. 3 – Late Piano Works = Fantasien, Op. 116; Drei Intermezzi, Op. 117; Klavierstücke, Op. 118; Klavierstücke, Op. 119 – Hardy Rittner, piano – MD&G

by | Aug 25, 2011 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: Complete Piano Music Vol. 3 – Late Piano Works = Fantasien, Op. 116; Drei Intermezzi, Op. 117; Klavierstücke, Op. 118; Klavierstücke, Op. 119 – Hardy Rittner, piano – MD&G multichannel SACD (2+2+2) MDG 904 1680-6, 74:32  [Distr. by E1] ***1/2:

It’s instructive and pleasurable to hear these works played on instruments Brahms would have known first-hand; the quieter, gentler pieces fare best.

Brahms’s earliest piano music includes hulking piano sonatas. While he wrote no more of those after the 1850s, he continued to write in large forms for the piano through his middle years, producing a celebrated string of works in variations form. He was the chief exemplar of the classical Romanticist, eschewing program music for large-scale works in sonata form. It may seem strange, then, that his last compositions for piano from the 1890s are collections of short pieces. As Hartmut Fladt writes in his notes to this program, “One might conclude that they represent a retreat into ‘inner monologues,’ or even see them as an impoverishment. Yet the entire cosmos of Brahms’s genres, forms and characters is assembled in these ‘pieces.’”

I’m not sure I would go that far, but these works still represent Brahms’s unflinching commitment to absolute music; of the twenty pieces in Brahms’s Op. 116-119, only three have names that hint at the extramusical: Ballade (Op. 118, No. 3), Romanze (Op. 118, No. 5), and Rhapsodie (Op. 119, No. 4). And none wear their heart on their sleeve as a Schumann character piece or Mendelssohn song without words do. If they have a program, it remains obscure, known only to the composer. Thirteen of the twenty are titled Intermezzi; Brahms’s friend the musicologist Philipp Spitta summed up the character of these works, and to extent what he says characterizes all of Brahms’s late piano pieces: “I believe I understand what you wanted to say when you entitled them ‘Intermezzos.’ ‘Intermediate pieces’ are both preceded and followed by other things, and in this case musicians and listeners alike must imagine for themselves what they are.”

As Hartmut Fladt notes, the Intermezzo Op. 119, No. 1, is one of the few pieces about which Brahms left a commentary, calling it “exceptionally melancholic. . . . Every bar and every note must sound like ritard., as if one would suck melancholy from each, and relish from every one of the said dissonances!” The mood is not only achieved through the work’s slow tempo but through a harmonic ambiguity that makes the piece seem as if it is constantly seeking harmonic resolution that never comes—a very forward-looking work. So rather than a retrenching, in many ways these short pieces continue Brahms’s dialog with the musical currents of his day, his striving to say something musically significant for his own time and times to come.
Hardy Rittner, who studied early piano at the Salzburg Mozarteum, writes knowledgeably about the two instruments he uses on this recording, a Johann Baptist Streicher & Sohn piano of 1870 and a J. M. Schweighofer’s Söhne piano of 1876-77, saying that since in the nineteenth century piano manufacturing had not yet been standardized, each instrument “was a tonally unique individual that could be outstanding for the performance of works of a certain character but not for all music.” Hence Rittner chose to perform on two different instruments. Streicher pianos, one of which Brahms himself owned, are “constructed more conservatively” and have a smaller, less ringing sound than those by Schweighofer, which according to Rittner produce a larger volume of sound than most other grand pianos of the era. Thus the Schweighofer is a good choice for the brusque opening Capriccio of Op. 116 and the final number from Op. 119, the fiery Rhapsodie. But despite this bigger volume of sound, the fact that the Schweighofer (and indeed the Streicher too) have little of a modern piano’s sustaining power means that in the louder, faster music, both pianos induce ragged phrasing, at least to these ears attuned to the orotund strains of the modern grand. So while it’s instructive and pleasurable to hear Brahms’s music played on instruments he would have used himself, I find that in many works you simply must turn to a good performance on a modern piano to hear the grandeur implicit in Brahms’s conception.

Maybe it has to do with the instruments that Rittner plays, but some of the faster pieces, such as the Capriccios at either end of Op. 116 (No. 1, marked Presto energico, and No. 7, marked Allegro agitato) sound a bit matter-of-fact in these performances. I find that Rittner gets at the heart of the slower, more reflective music much better, and many of these pieces emerge with a special tenderness, thanks in part to the intimate sound of the old pianos. That includes my favorite among the twenty pieces—Intermezzo Op. 116, No. 2—and that melancholic Intermezzo Op. 119, No. 1, which Clara Schumann aptly called “a gray pearl.” Hardy Rittner and his 1870 Streicher imbue this work with an especially pearly lambency.

So while there is much to admire and enjoy here, Rittner’s performances can’t possibly be the last word in these important works. But they would make an attractive supplement to a recording by the likes of Kempff or Ax. The MD&G engineers provide their typically spacious SACD sound, making this disc an even more attractive proposition.

—Lee Passarella

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