BRAHMS: Fantasias, Op. 116; Intermezzos, Op. 117; Clavierstuecke, Op. 118; Scherzo in E-flat minor, Op. 4 – Garrick Ohlsson, piano – Hyperion CDA68226, 71:39 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

For all of his confessed aversion to the music of Robert Schumann, pianist Garrick Ohlsson (rec. 12-14 November 2017) embraces the late keyboard works of Schumann’s dearest acolyte and “discovery,” Johannes Brahms. These compositions, 1892-1894, meant to declare the composer’s retirement from creative activity, his having arranged a series of forty-nine German folk songs, of which the last had contributed to the slow movement of his own C Major Piano Sonata, Op. 1, so forming an ouroboros, “the snake that bites its tail – and thus states with pretty symbolism that the tale is finished,” Brahms expressed to his publisher Fritz Simrock.   Obviously, Brahms had underestimated his own capacity for inspiration: he was to meet the clarinet virtuoso Richard Muehlfeld, who would motivate Brahms to add several clarinet works to his already generous chamber music legacy.

For twenty or so intermezzi Brahms created for his opera 116-119, he favored the term klavierstuecke, a non-committal designation that would not pigeonhole a work’s character, despite the term fantasy or capriccio. Brahms would refer to the late works as “songs to my sorrows” or “old bachelor’s music,” given their introverted, resigned character.  Brahms loved the 1868 Streicher instrument for the performance of his works, given its light action and its salon intimacy. If capriccio means to invoke a piece of invigorated, aggressive vitality, then certainly Ohlsson’s attack upon the D minor, Op. 116, No. 1 proves intimidating, sacrificing subtlety for a tragic vehemence – in falling thirds – worthy of Beethoven. Ohlsson, however, does grant the A minor Intermezzo its restrained status as what Spitta calls “the intermediate piece,” with its reflective mood (Stimmung) in ternary form. The G minor Capriccio, too, exhibits a manic drive and throttling sense of fatality, offset by a trio section of heartbroken outpouring. Listen to the depth of Ohlsson’s bass tones from his Steinway instrument, a far cry from the Streicher and Erard instruments the aging Brahms found to his taste. Ensue three intermezzi in the key of E Major, an extended refuge from the world in the form of a slow movement. The first of these may well deserve the composer’s initial designation, “Nocturne.”

Portrait of Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

The second of the E Major pieces sighs in two-note, dissonant phrases set as sequences. Ohlsson imbues the piece with a haunted, mesmeric affect. The last of the E Major triptych might be construed “in antique style,” a kind of minuet in chromatic half steps.  Some of the passing dissonances already point to Debussy. The middle section, limpid with falling thirds, moves back to the da capo, almost funereal in its progress. Finally, the second D minor Capriccio, circling back to the agitations of the opening piece, emotionally wrought with figures we know from the same-key Tragic Overture.  Ohlsson gives to this passionate expression the full “symphonic” treatment, a stunning sense of closure.

Brahms took lines from a poem by Johann Gottfried Herder to open his set of Intermezzi, Op. 117: the Scottish lullaby of No. 1 in E-flat Major translates well into the Brahms keyboard medium, whose middle section moves in drooping figures, easily assignable as tears from a the now-sleeping child in Herder’s poem. The No. 2 in B-flat minor often provided an encore for Artur Rubinstein: it instantiates the notion of “rainy-day music” in Brahms. While the middle section modulates into the major, the sense of agitation does not diminish, Ohlsson’s having imparted a dire feeling of relentless fate into the mix. The C-sharp minor, Andante con moto, I have elsewhere characterized a pre-Kurt Weill moment of exalted crisis in the Brahms oeuvre. The syncopations of the trio section only add to the profound resignation in the piece, and its drooping and bell-tone figures point to a personal abyss.

Brahms wrote the six pieces of Clavierstuecke, Op. 118 in 1893, likely for the aged Clara Schumann or  for her prize pupil, Ilona Eibenschuetz. The first of the Intermezzi, this in A minor, is to be played “not fast but passionately.” Ohlsson imparts a sadly heroic status to the huge, sweeping gesture, undergirded in F Major. Its secondary section has cascades of eighth note runs and diminished seventh chords to increase the sense of anxiety.  The A Major Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2 Andante teneramente, generates an expressive warmth reminiscent of the various Mendelssohn miniatures that we call “songs without words.” The middle section, canonic, is cast in F-sharp minor, fraught with melancholy. The G minor Ballade, like Blake’s Tyger, lunges forth assertively, percussively and staccato, but with a transition to tenderness in its B Major middle section, legato, in thirds and sixths. Here, we feel Ohlsson is close to the D minor movement in the Second Piano Concerto. The F minor Intermezzo, set in short phrases, reveals its own capacity for subdued warmth, even passion, of expression.  The F Major Romance provided another Artur Rubinstein staple: its noble procession suggests an askew hymn tune that divides duple and triple meter. The middle section, Allegretto grazioso, may pay homage to Chopin’s own use of moving trills. The E-flat minor Intermezzo grants us a large canvas, rather tragic, since its opening parlando (sotto voce) hints at the Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass, the same tune that haunts Rachmaninov. The bass arpeggios and diminished sevenths rumble with equal menace. Brahms develops the piece so that the main theme assumes octave, martial girth and symphonic texture, in which Ohlsson revels. Unlike Beethoven, the drama does not resolved itself heroically but descends dismally into the depths on an E-flat minor arpeggio.

The tragic key of E-flat has Ohlsson’s connecting with an early Brahms opus, his Scherzo of 1851, composed when he was nineteen.  More of Chopin than of Schumann, the jumpy, convulsive opening tune in fast triple meter seems reminiscent of the Chopin Op. 31, though the two-trio model leans to Schumann. The second trio glows in B Major and provides some lyricism, though its own syncopations keep it restless. The texture moves from direct hammering to skittish, leaping figures, often staggered in terms of pulse and percussive duration. Brahms will use the closing cadences in his Scherzo in the F Minor Sonata, Op. 5.  Since the opening motif recurs before and after the trio episodes, it might be safe to call the Op. 4 work a rondo. Whatever the accrued form, the piece under Ohlsson achieves a commanding, imposing character whose individual quirks of style and content make it required listening for the Brahms connoisseur.

—Gary Lemco