BRAHMS: Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118; Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 119; Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Three Intermezzi, Op. 117 – Francois Chaplin, piano – Apertemusic AP173, 72:57 (6/21/19) [apertemusic.com] ****:
Recorded 18-21 April 2016 at the Saint Pierre Church in Paris, this survey of late Brahms keyboard music features French pianist Francois Chaplin’s playing on a Vienna Boesendorfer Concert Grand 280. The microphone placement creates a deep sonic image, especially in Chaplin’s bass tones, his left hand particularly active to establish a potent line in the canonic F minor Intermezzo from Op. 118 set of 1893. The A Major, Op. 118, No. 2 emerges songfully in double counterpoint in its center section, much in the mood of a chorale. The reading of the G minor Ballade proves brisk and resonant, perhaps not so grandly heroic as the classic Gieseking rendition. The Romanze in F Major, an Artur Rubinstein staple, enjoys a broad leisure, a meditative chorale whose personal nostalgia becomes lyrically wistful, the trills wending their way among teardrops to the upper registers. The grand E-flat minor Intermezzo evinces a dark power that likely affected Rachmaninov. The Dies Irae seems immanent, tracing its way through labyrinthine voices to evolve into a galloping central section. The mix of colors points no less to Debussy syntax, rich in passing bass chromatics. The last bars express an ironic passion in disenchantment.
The Vier Klavierstuecke, Op. 119 (1893) increase the sense of the composer’s melancholy introspection. The opening B Minor Intermezzo has often claimed the burgeoning art of Arnold Schoenberg as its heir. Pointillistic, set in descending chains of thirds, Adagio, the piece bears the hallmarks, ritardando, of Brahms in condensed miniature, veiled and emotionally elusive. Selective dissonance moves the E minor Andantino un poco agitato, whose underlying, syncopated pulsations suggest an emotional gravitas that reveals much anguish. The middle section, a lament or aria in the style of a waltz, restructures the main theme in contrapuntal layers. The Intermezzo in C Major proffers one of the composer’s many “thumb melodies” that plays humorously with duple and triple meter that, for a moment, breaks out in passionate utterance. The tumbling arpeggios Chaplin renders voluptuously. The set ends with the grandiose, percussive Rhapsody in E-flat Major, massive in the manner of the composer’s youthful sonatas that worship Beethoven. The five-bar phrases play off against the “fate” motif music knows well. Chaplin plays the middle section with a swagger we feel in Poulenc’s boulevard breezes. The old Brahms Hungarian gypsy style emerges to add a militant bite that will hurl us forward, ironically, into a resolution in E-flat minor.
The 1879 Two Rhapsodies of Brahms testify to his obsession with architecture even while in the throes of a dark passion. The B minor, set in ternary form, reveals a sonata-form structure, opening with Chaplin’s potent declamations and then moving to a completely meditative mood in the relative major. Touches of delicacy mark the composer’s love of sequences that move in half steps in relatively diatonic harmony. In the course of the return to the opening section, Brahms sets a coda that embraces the middle episode melody in the original B minor. The G minor Rhapsody presents another sonata-form, beginning with fire in an arpeggiated triad and moving to a second subject that projects a ghostly character. Despite Chaplin’s sense of urgency, the development bears a stark, even bleak sound world, bereft of optimism, already indicating the “old bachelor music” template for late Brahms.
The Three Intermezzi, Op. 117, “lullabies to my loneliness,” as Brahms expresses it, cast a nostalgic glance to Schumann and his “childlike” ethos. Brahms takes a song from the poet Herder’s Volkslieder, “Anne Bothwell’s Lament,” as his main subject, its Scottish melancholy sympathetic to the late Brahms sensibility. The music alternates E-flat Major and its tonic minor, the rocking motion perfectly suited to the German translation of the Scottish lyric. The B-flat Major, Andante non troppo e con molto espressione condenses a sonata form. The falling arpeggios create that “rainy day” melancholy typical of the Brahms experience in his keyboard miniatures. The second subject wanders into D-flat Major. The flowing lyricism, rife with passing and unsettling motion, craves resolution with the music’s dedicatee, Clara Schumann. The C-sharp minor I have often compared to the sensibility of post-War Kurt Weill’s Berlin. The ballade-like theme takes us through several octaves, its latter response rather martial in character but sotto voce. The central section in A Major has dark syncopations, again much in keeping with the Herder translation of yet another lament, “Woe. . .deep in the valley.” Expansive yet bitterly stripped of optimism, this music persists as among the most powerfully expressive of the Brahms keyboard oeuvre.
Chaplin’s piano has been captured by Francois-Xavier Soulard, who literally basks in the sound image, allowing the decay of each final chord’s decay a sumptuous spaciousness.
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