BRAHMS: Seven Fantasias, Op. 116; Three Intermezzi, Op. 117; Six Pieces, Op. 118; Four Pieces, Op. 119 – Ariel Halevy, piano – Romeo 7312, 68:23 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Israeli pianist Ariel Halevy (b. 1976) has a strong affinity for the late piano music (1892-1893) of Johannes Brahms, often addressing the twenty pieces – assorted as capriccios, romance, intermezzos, one ballade and one rhapsody – with forceful vigor.  What Halevy sacrifices in “inwardness” he gains in emotionally volatile sincerity, particularly when he engages Op. 116.  A degree of passionate clangor works in Brahms, especially if the so-called “thumb melodies” emerge with their requisite melancholy. The dense Capriccio in D Minor luxuriates in thirds and sixths, the bass in pedal under a series of diminished sevenths. Halevy exploits the immediate contrast with the first intermezzo, that in A Minor, a ¾ Andante which Halevy plays in the manner of a Spanish sarabande.  The real emotive power of this pianist shines in the “rainy-day” E Major No. 4, perhaps the clearest evocation of Schumann in the set.  The E Minor No. 5 plays off a series of weak beats that prefigure tendencies in the Second Viennese School. To play the chorale-like No. 6 in E without canonic heaviness remains a challenge, especially as the progressions begin to swirl in a manner evocative of Debussy.  The final Capriccio in D Minor returns to 3/8 and the bravura use of thumbs, its temperament as explosive as that of the opening piece.  Halevy’s non-legato approach shakes the rafters in the resonant coda.

The famous 6/8 Intermezzo in E-flat Major, Op. 117, No. 1, with its lullaby sentiment, Halevy takes at a slightly brisker tempo than those who milk the sweetness. The Op. 117 claims to be “songs to my sorrows” in the Brahms oeuvre, and the middle piece, the Intermezzo in B-flat Minor, has dominated as the incarnation of the Brahms nostalgia. When Halevy takes the secondary motif into B-flat Minor, the sunshine falls away from any fairer hopes, and the four fateful chords invoke our old nemesis, Beethoven. The C-sharp Minor Intermezzo remains the most evocative Kurt Weill’s Weimar Berlin, barren in parallel octaves. The bass progression and its tenor answer retain the lugubrious melancholy of some personal doxology. Halevy takes the middle section quickly, its attempts at brighter joy invaded by dark knowledge.

Halevy invests a sweeping, broad brush to the brief A Minor Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 1. The left hand eighth notes become fully integrated into the catapulting motion of the melody so that the effect becomes “symphonic.”  The perennial A Major No. 2 Halevy plays as a moving dialogue of major and minor colors attempting an unstable detente. The Ballade in G Minor first hit me like a cannon in a performance by Gieseking.  Something of the Hungarian Dances invests its relentless motion, even in its suave move to B Major in the middle-section.  That Brahms called this highly concentrated piece a Ballade seems to mock the larger epics in the form by Chopin, Grieg, and Liszt, but its compressed emotions can still become titanic. The F Minor Intermezzo and F Major Romanze complement each other, connected as they are by an augmented (“Picardy”) third. I find Halevy’s patina too hard for the Romanze, so I return to my favorite Rubinstein. But Halevy does make the intricate A-flat – E Major – C Major middle-section sing. The big E-flat Minor No. 6 constitutes a microcosm in itself, almost a dirge by Halevy resonant in the manner of the Dies Irae. The heroic impulse takes over in Chopin’s style of heavy chords and Neapolitan harmony, but the modal contour of the opening material crushes the quest under the tolling bells of implacable Fate.

The eerily gossamer texture of the Op. 119, No. 1 in B Minor droops and ritards in figures Schoenberg would envy. The penchant of Brahms for falling thirds, rampant in his E Minor Symphony, rule here, as they do in the succeeding Intermezzo in E Minor. The pulsating rhythm of the No. 2, agitato, unnerves us even in its wistful song, which Halevy rushes to the central section in E Major. Both dolce and teneramente, the fleeting happiness of the central section yields to the nervous anxiety of the dominant rhythm, until at the coda, the music sighs for the temporary bliss it had. The little C Major Intermezzo, so delicately poised in the Rubinstein realization, finds sharper thumbs from Halevy. A light scherzo, it sets us up for the mighty chords of the E-flat Major Rhapsody.  The heroic impulse finds an adversary in A-flat Major but soon breaks off into the strumming effects of an anxious guitar.  The original tune, scherzando, soon gains momentum and darkness as it hurtles forward, re-establishing the sonata-form return of the original theme, fortissimo, and thoroughly triumphant in bold colors.  The playing throughout has been large, passionate, and eminently idiomatic.

—Gary Lemco