Craig Sheppard traverses the late Brahms piano music with resolve and reflection.
BRAHMS: The Late Piano Works = 7 Fantasien, Op. 116; 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117; 6 Klavierstuecke, Op. 118; 4 Klavierstuecke, Op. 119 – Craig Sheppard, piano – Romeo Records 7327, 74:42 (3/18/18) [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Brahms began the writing of his last sets of keyboard music around 1892, works he characterized as “old bachelor music” to suggest their introspective, sometimes bleak emotional states. Complex, dense, and contemplative, the pieces demand less of pure virtuosity than long, meditative musicianship and a capacity for nuanced coloration. Their brevity may pay homage to the composer’s mentor, Schumann, who extolled the short character piece as essential to the Romantic ethos. The Op. 116 set reveals a certain symmetry, with D Minor Capriccios serving as bookends, and interior lines shared by several of the Intermezzos, in the third and seventh pieces and close intimacy of those 4-6 in E Major, of which the No. 5 opens in minor but concludes in the major mode.
Sheppard belies the remark about the relatively restrained virtuosity required, opening the D Minor Capriccio with Lisztian fervor, in the manner of an assertive ballad. The A Minor Intermezzo, Andante, proceeds in triple meter, while its middle section, 3/8, extends its sense of haunted nostalgia. The Capriccio in G minor gives us passionate Brahms, with a middle section—based on a German drinking song—in E-flat Major suggests a Neapolitan flavor in the quarter note triplets. Sheppard calls the No. 4 “the gem of the set,” since it displays the composer’s penchant for developing variation. The fifth piece, in staggered motion, an Andante con grazia, exploits minute points of symmetry in half steps and vertical chords. The No. 6, Intermezzo, Andantino teneramente, suggests a conversation, although the atmosphere seems antiquated, like a menuet. The upper-register arpeggios ring with memories of times past. The hectic, even manic, nature of the final D minor Capriccio catapults forward, but its agistation halts and enters a quizzical moment before the piece leaps to a furious D Major coda.
Brahms wrote the Three Intermezzi, Op. 117 at Bad Ischl in the summer of 1892. He called the pieces -three andantes—“three cradle songs of my sorrow.” The opening Intermezzo in E-flat Major casts a Scottish folk song, “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament,” as a 6/8 lullaby, with a central section in the tonic minor. The No. 2 vacillates between B-flat minor and D-flat Major, another of the Brahms works in thematic transformation. Sheppard characterizes the piece as “a love poem, wistful and longing in the outer sections.” He invests the climactic passages with fiery passion, although the energy seeps away into somewhat bitter recollection. The Intermezzo in C-sharp minor maintains a sensibility of Kurt Weill and post-war Berlin. Here, in ternary form, Brahms exploits parallel octaves. The middle section, set in A Major, provides drama in the right hand octaves, what Sheppard calls “a flight of fantasy from wordly woes.”
Brahms dedicated the 1893 Six Intermezzi, Op. 118 to the ailing Clara Schumann. The opening C Major Intermezzo may have a “confessional” character, rife as it unfolds with passion, moving to A Major and a brief episode in both F-sharp minor and Major. The No. 2 in A Major, Andante teneramente, clearly reveals a love song, and it literally throbs with supplication. Its middle section exploits the Brahms penchant for duple versus triple meter. The G minor Ballade still resonates in my own mind with the recorded performance by Walter Gieseking. Sheppard calls this bold piece “feisty,” given its irreverence and resolve, moving to a witty D-sharp minor in the middle part. The brisky agitated Intermezzo in F minor demands imitation by both hands in the opening and in the chordal middle section. Brahms entitles his fifth piece Romanze: Andante-Allegretto grazioso, set as a kind of cradle song in rocking rhythm. The middle section has a pastoral element in its D Major setting and moving trills. An adumbration of the tragedy in Mahler, the Intermezzo in E-flat minor carries a sense of desolation. Three adjacent pitches drive the piece, in descending motion, to a place unearthly, and gravitating to G-flat. Despite its resignation, the piece does explode into a moment of passionate, martial fury.
The 1893 set of Vier Klavierstuecke, Op. 119 bear a strong emotional tie to Clara Schumann. Brahms wrote of the opening Intermezzo in A minor of its “discords. . .and exceptional melancholy.” Its grey pearls (Clara Schumann’s epithet) more than point to the imminent world of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School’s penchant to pulverization of motifs. Sheppard’s reading enjoys a bit more optimism and assertion than that of Glenn Gould, who is all grief. The No. 2, in E minor and E Major, bears a restless fervor, moving from delicate march to a kind of nostalgic waltz, all in a flowing stream of variants. The Intermezzo in C Major, long an Artur Rubinstein favorite, carries wit in its scherzando brevity, the melody set in the lower fingers of the right hand. Its shifting metrics add to the challenge of the occasion. Finally, another of the Brahms settings in five-bar phrases, his pompous Rhapsody in E-Flat, a work Clara Schumann felt to be “Hungarian,” as if Brahms had reverted to his early roots in music. The music has a lyrical moment centrally, in A-flat Major, but C Minor triplets lead us away until the music’s peroration, in the minor mode of E-flat, a “tragic” resolution that shares kinship with the beloved Schubert in his E-flat Impromptu from D. 899.
Sheppard and production team—Dmitry Lipay, Alexander Lipay, and Ron Mannario—share the credit for a powerfully conceived collection of the late Brahms whose personal demons had been sublimated into precious jewels.