BRAHMS: Late Piano Works = Three Intermezzi, Op. 117; Four Intermezzi, Op. 118; Capriccio in F-sharp Minor, Op. 76, No. 1; Capriccio in B Minor, Op. 76, No. 2; Five Pieces from Op. 116; Intermezzo in B Minor, Op. 119, No. 1 – Gena Raps, p. – Musical Friends NY, 52:17 [www.musicalfriendsny.com] ****:

Gena Raps received her M.S. at The Juilliard School, having studied with Artur Balsam, and Irwin Freundlich. Ms. Raps’ chamber music studies include those with Artur Balsam, Luigi Silva, and Joseph and Lillian Fuchs. She recorded these selected klavierstuecke of Brahms at the Greenville Community Church, Scarsdale, New York.

Ms. Raps describes the late works (c. 1892-1893) of Brahms in highly contradictory terms, as alternately requiring “explosive power and velocity [while] others are less taxing. But all of them demand an exquisite sensitivity and mature sensibility to make them ring true.” Raps performs Brahms directly and without mannerism, powerfully and delicately as required. She opens with the haunted Intermezzo in E Major, Op. 116, No. 4, composed when Brahms mourned for his ailing sister. Its passionate predecessor, the Capriccio in G Minor, Op. 116, No. 3, virtually explodes off the printed page, what biographer Max Kalbeck once described as “a loud howl.” The E Major, Op. 116, No. 6, has a stealthy inexorability, much like Chopin’s prelude in the same key. The middle section, however, indulges those “rainy day sentiments” that often mark the Brahms ethos.

The first of Raps’ investigations into Op. 118 begins with No. 4 in F Minor, which she takes rather breathlessly in the manner of a syncopated etude. Its designation Allegretto un poco agitato does become realized plaintively. The most far-reaching of the intermezzi, the Intermezzo in B Minor, Op. 119, No. 1, never ceases to adumbrate aspects of the Second Viennese School. Its raindrop, pointillistic opening moves in small phrased periods and harmonic clusters Schoenberg and Webern had to admire. As Clara Schumann noted, the effect – of all the Brahms late piano works – must suggest constant ritardando, rife with melancholy. The companion piece from Op. 119, the expansive No. 2 in E Minor, exudes a nervous energy that often threatens to break loose. The bass line proves exceptionally agitated; but suddenly, one of those many lovely and sad “thumb melodies” rises out of the emotional discord to provide bittersweet consolation. Raps complements the almost obsessive nostalgia with the A Minor Intemrezzo, Op. 118, No. 1, whose opening gesture embraces a grand passion, theatrically histrionic.  The famed A Major Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2 indulges a wonderful top melody line, but its vertical, canonical drama proves no less compelling.

Raps returns to Op. 116 with two emotionally pungent entries: the No. 5 Intermezzo in E Minor communicates a bleakness akin to desolation and despair. Even its rolling motion – after a series of broken phrases that answer each other – becomes obsessive. The last of the Op. 116 sequence, the Capriccio in D Minor, No. 7, projects a frenetic compulsion, perhaps the Brahms equivalent of the Chopin “Winter Wind” Etude. The expressive velocity of this piece certainly marks Raps as a major player of Brahms. Raps embraces the complete Op. 117 – “the three cradle songs of my sorrow” – as an artistic triptych. The “lullaby” No. 1 E-flat Major Intermezzo Raps plays in a studied fashion, sostenuto, an operatic aria in slow motion. The No. 2 in B-flat Minor perpetually had exponents in Rubinstein, Schnabel, Solomon, and Kempff. This is the “rainy afternoon” persona of Brahms epitomized. Raps performs the music as wistfully and she does contemplatively. Her non-legato allows her a moment of darker drama many a “lyric” performance elides. The C-sharp Minor Intermezzo, Op. 117, No. 3 remains the most angst-ridden, almost a moment of post-war Kurt Weill. Raps gives it a singing life, but rocked by an inner anguish whose pulse urges that Marvell line about “time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

Raps concludes with the first two entries from the Brahms 1878 collection, Op. 76. The F-sharp Minor, Op. 76, No. 1 proffers diminished harmonies that seethe with repressed passion. That interior torment and spiritual restiveness does not always remain latent. The colors pile up in stretto, the chromatic line immersed in shifting harmonies, voluptuous as they are mournful. The finale, the Capriccio in B Minor, Op. 76, No. 2, long served as a Rubinstein encore. A Hungarian gypsy piece de bravura, it dallies and flirts in witty accents and off-beats, its middle section curiously anticipatory of Debussy. The last page skitters and laughs, even if it smiles no more.

—Gary Lemco