Brahms autumnal masterpieces…
Brahms – Late Piano Works opp. 116-119 – Paul Lewis – Harmonia Mundi 902365 – 1/2022- 77:07; *****
In the year of 1891, not quite 60 Johannes Brahms was a short round man with a large beard who nevertheless cast long shadows on his contemporaries. He had long accepted that he was the finest product of the Zeitgeist, but that didn’t bring him much satisfaction. He was too taken with the past, haunted one might even say, by unpaid debts not only to his great friend and original sponsor Robert Schumann but in a general sense to his illustrious predecessors. He worried that he might not in the end live up to the Great Ones that had gone before him. He diligently busied himself curating, editing, and critically appraising the great works of European Musical culture. He edited and published the keyboard works of Francois Couperin. He tidied up the musical legacy of both Schumanns. Willingly or not he found himself representing monumental echt-German High Culture, a lineage from Bach through Beethoven to the cusp of a new century that might be deluged by Wagnerians without his conscientious stewardship. (He wasn’t afraid to stomp on an aspiring young composer who he deemed unworthy of the High Art. He destroyed the musical career of Hans Rott for example.)
And yet his own production had ground to a halt. He looked on with envy at the inspired melodic gifts of his contemporaries Dvorak and Max Bruch. He felt like his creative juices had dried up. He would become a marble bust like Beethoven, or worse his music would be forgotten, subverted by a new generation of Modernists.
It was then that something unexpected happened. The original power of music broke through the ice of his character and kindled a fire that would burst into a magnificent flame of inspiration. It could be said that an instrument was responsible: the clarinet. Although certainly the playing of Richard Muhlfeld had something to do with it. The clarinet does have a certain potency, an ability to cut through musical notions to get at the heart of the matter: timbre and melody, in a most direct way. By all accounts Something like this happened to Brahms and he decided he must write for this instrument and this player and so he did and in the process entered a new period of intense creativity.
We owe the last great works of Brahms to the inspiration provided by Muhlfeld. A notoriously slow worker, he wrote opus 114 and 115 in just a matter of weeks.
1891 saw the creation of his fine trio for Clarinet, cello and piano opus 114 and his singular clarinet quintet opus 115. The latter work is this writer’s all time favorite chamber piece of the 19th century (not a controversial nomination) and easily numbers among the most esteemed works by Brahms in any genre. It is not to be missed by lovers of classical music but it is especially important as a doorway into the collection of piano pieces gathered under the opus numbers 116-119 which seem like they grow directly out of the fertile soil of the quintet. What they share is not only the very specific Brahmsian melancholy but also a feeling of intimate communication about time, love, extinction, Robert and Clara Schumann and all of the ironies and paradoxes of the human condition.
I have a prescription for listeners of this new release by Harmonia Mundi. Prepare yourself by immersing yourself in superior recording of the Clarinet quintet. You could hardly do better than the Harmonia Mundi recording by the Jerusalem Quartet. (the Stanley Drucker recording with the Elysium would be a second choice). Fully absorb the message of this music. Listen closely to the plangent weeping of the viola in the final movement but don’t let it give you the mopes. Notice how much more landscape there is in this piece, and how memorable it is even in comparison to the composer’s other three well fashioned string quartets.
Only then pour yourself a glass of something and put on the headphones for a remarkable immersion in the late piano music of Brahms.
The artist is Paul Lewis. Most of us encountered this British pianist some years back by way of a complete tour of Beethoven that came out in several different packages, expertly produced by Harmonia Mundi. The applause for this series was general, if not absolute. To my ears, he had the requisite technical and intellectual prowess to make a good account of this definitive literature. I found his playing dramatic and agile, alert to nuances, humor and expressive detail. A first rate production. As it often happens with the major classical repertoire, the set had to contend with other brilliant Beethoven competitors, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on Chandos most notably and then more recently Igor Levitt. It is no easy thing to hold the stage. I soon forgot about Lewis who seemed to be just another great Beethoven player, as if we needed one more.
The next time I heard his name was in an unusual context. A friend recounted a tale from his doctor’s visit. He had gotten a perfectly foul score on his blood pressure test and the doctor was becoming admonitory, waving bottles of statins at him and suggesting life-style changes. Said friend, a musical feinschmecker of the most sensitive sort, asked for a chance to redo the test after a twenty minute pause. The doctor agreed and the friend used that time to play through (in his mind) the entire slow movement from Franz Schubert’s B-flat sonata. When he retook the test, his blood pressure was in the safe zone, 24 points lower. His look of serenity sealed the deal and he left without the statins.
I wasn’t surprised by his choice of Schubert nor by the physiology involved. But I assumed the only performer capable of this sort of magic would have been Mitsuko Uchida, the sorceress of the slow tempo.”Surely the Uchida performance?” I inquired. “Nope” he said with a finger in the air “Paul Lewis, is the man for me, possibly the best for Schubert, or at least as good as your beloved Brendel and Uchida.”
I spent the next week working through all the Lewis Schubert and had to agree that the very different requirements that this composer posed were admirably met by Lewis. Watery pianissimos, the exact modicum of rubato, the ability to make each repeat different, the laughing through tears. It was no small achievement. His Schubert discs now sit adjacent to Uchida shrine, a perfect coupling of Sun god and Moon goddess.
Thus I was not surprised to see Lewis turn up with a Brahms recital. This music is much closer in spirit to Schubert ( or to the Eusebius side of Schumann) than to Beethoven. Andantes prevail over the brisker pieces. Minor keys push the ombre towards the twilight hues. Lewis operates calmly, finding the voice of each piece without any personal assertion.
The four sets include pieces called Intermezzi, Fantasias, Klavierstucke, Ballade, Capriccio, etc. These terms dont help clarify the formal structures of the pieces however, nor do the opus numbers. They can be played in just about any order although I have a certain preference for the 3 intermezzi opus 117 which is where I would start. This smallest of the sets consists of three meditative Andantes which reconnoiter the emotional terrain of the new world that Brahms has discovered. ( A fine recording by Markus Groh takes this approach 117, 116, 118 and then 119)
Some of the characteristic voicings and harmonic wizardry of Brahms form opus 118 no. 2 From a purely technical standpoint these late works are a good source for all of the 19th century Romantic era harmonic and voice-leading techniques, from Chopin to Liszt.
I submit that the second of these Andantes is the closest Brahms ever got to sounding like Chopin. The third Andante is striking for its brilliant unisons which build upwards in and arrive at a series of rhetorical inflections that remind one of Beethoven asking himself if the world must really be the way it is. The answer of course by the Universe is a pitiless “Yes this is the way it is.”
You can also just start with the opus 116 set. The Capriccio sounds very much like the assertive Brahms of the opus 79 rhapsodies. Intricate passagework, polyphonic battles and technical hurdles are met resolutely by the nimble fingered pianist. There are extroverted works of this sort throughout the set but they are more than held in balance by pieces that probe, inquire, reflect, that have long respirations. Here the interpretative skills of the pianist are to the fore and we have no doubt that one could alter one’s blood pressure with the otherworldy intermezzos of the last set. Paul Lewis plays these and almost every piece slower than, say Wilhelm Kempff (by 7 minutes for the same recital) but not as slow as Groh.
Ths label certainly has taken audiophile recordings of the Steinway to a high level. From the Melnikov Shostakovich to the Javier Perianas Schubert and Blasco de Nebra (to mention some other reference recordings for piano sound) and now with this recital we can say that we are living in the great moment for recorded sound. The most judicious ears will be flattered by the attention to sonic detail, the transparency and sound image captured by these skilled engineers.
Few labels can compete with Harmonia Mundi for the quality of recorded sound. See here is another unbeatable piano recital.
I can heartily endorse this recording and warmly recommend discovering the very special beauty of Brahms autumnal masterpieces.