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Nada & BRAHMS = Two Chorales, Op. 122; Klavierstuecke, Op. 76; 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117; Etude in F minor after Chopin Op. 25, No. 2; Etude in G minor after Bach Partita No. 1 for Solo Violin: Presto; 4 Hungarian Dances; Theme and Variations in D minor from Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18; Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 9; Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp minor, Op. 2 – Nada Loufti, piano – MEII Enterprises (2 CDs) 54:41; 69:17 (10/1/18) [www.meiienterprises.com] ****:

Pianist Nada Loufti has made Brahms a personal project, one that aims to establish her credentials in this music on a par with the legends of the genre: Backhaus, Gieseking, and Katchen.  Nada likes to explore the rarities in the Brahms piano oeuvre as well as the typical sets of intermezzos, capriccios, and rhapsodies. Nada takes two of the organ preludes, Op. 122 – Nos. 7 and 3 – in her own arrangement, based on the Brietkopf & Haertel Edition, which orders the chorales differently than that established by one William Kupfer, who forwarded to an engraver the scores left on the composer’s desk, posthumously, in 1897. A good place to start listening in earnest could be the Intermezzo in A-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 3. Intensely personal and highly inflected, the music gains from Nada an alla musette character – in the style of a music-box – even as she hesitates between bar lines and applies a romantic rubato to a piece written in 4/4 but flowing in triplet syncopations in five-bar phrases. The asymmetries are softened by the texture, the harmony’s moving to C minor before the meter changes at the last, to 3/2.

The “rainy-day” effect of the Intermezzo in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, also grazioso, though brief, manages a long-short succession that gravitates into G minor. Nada maintains a nervous pulse that sustains the composer’s delay of the home key until the coda. The capriccios tend to be animated, even tempestuous, and certainly chromatic. The C-sharp minor, Op. 76, No. 5 immerses itself in hemiola strategies, alternating 6/8 and 3/4, which sometimes clash, sometimes alternate. The coda presents a metrical knot whose emotional tenor remains quizzical, at best. Equally ambivalent in its emotions, the Intermezzo in A Major travels to C-sharp minor and F-sharp minor. In 2/4, the piece likes phrase lengths in nine bars.  The coda “mentions” the opening phrase, but Nada’s injects a decided note of resignation. The sad, syncopated chorale of the A minor, Op. 76, No. 7 appealed to Artur Rubinstein as well as Nada.  In 2/2 (cut time), the piece moves more quickly under Nada than from others, so its sentiment, rising in the midst of repeated arpeggios, leaves us unnerved by a glimpse of some tragic turn of events. The last of the capriccios, that in C Major, moves in 6/4 rather fitfully in syncopes, but the real interest lies in Nada’s left hand. The piece resolutely proceeds back into C Major after having detoured into B and F Major.

Nada’s penchant – and striking ability – to alter her touch and tone shine in the Three Intermezzi, Op. 117. She plays the so-called “lullaby” of Op. 117, No. 1 relatively quickly, but she adds a touch of rubato in the eighth measure. Intimate but without cloying the sentiment, her sense of drama in this piece recalls the tension achieved in simple lines, such as in the “Edward” Ballade of Op. 10. The Andante non troppo of Op. 117, No. 2 emerges hastily, but without sacrificing its own version of fateful, rainy-day, “old bachelor music.” The C-sharp minor Intermezzo remains for me the Brahms equivalent of Kurt Weill, post-Weimar cynicism. Nada imposes a cold patina to introduce the chromatic gloom of the severe octaves. The middle section, in A Major, Nada hesitates for a moment to introduce. Based on a Herder poem, the music’s syncopations assume a death-knoll effect. Nada’s sotto voce infuses the piece with the painful intimacy of any ballade you care to name.

Portrait of Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

Nada plays a Brahms treatment of Chopin’s study in F minor, “the Bees.”  A tricky encounter between warring rhythmic groups in duple and compound meters, the original can be played in a minute and forty seconds. Brahms works out the intricacies – in sixths and thirds – in the manner of Godowsky, literally more than doubling the length of the study. The Bach Presto transposes a solo violin bravura moment into a complex that both Busoni and Rachmaninov may well admire. The move into the middle register allows Nada to demonstrate the rich tone she brings when the music should sing and not merely resonate with virtuosity.

Disc 2 opens with four Hungarian Dances: No. 1 in G minor; No. 2 in D minor; No.3 in F Major; and No. 5 in F-sharp minor.  As “amateur folk music” the pieces prove quite effective, and we can see why they preserve their gypsy appeal.  Nada imbues them with vigorous personality and muscular sonority, as we might wish she would collaborate with James Ehnes for the set in the form in which Brahms and violinist Remenyi likely debuted many of them. The Variations in D minor (after Op. 18) came as a result of Clara Schumann’s enchantment with the Sextet No. 1 in B-flat, desiring the second movement by transcribed for her as a birthday gift September 13, 1860. The publication of the score occurred posthumously, despite the composer’s fondness for his arrangement, with its debts to the famous Bach Chaconne form the Partita No. 2. The heavy tread of the main theme undergoes six variations, of which the third proves a sweet morsel for Nada’s scales and arpeggios in sturm und drang. The fourth variant, too, set in the major mode, achieves a chorale status. While the fifth variant indulges Nada’s “music box” effects, the sixth variation serves as a coda, beginning in canon and progressing to a vaporous shadow of the original, leaving a kind of drum-beat under a fine mist.

The 1854 Schumann Variations appear at the time of Schumann’s first confinement to an asylum; so, the piece reflects a pathos born of the music (from Bunte Blaetter, Op. 99) and time of crisis.  The somber theme runs for 24 measures set in F-sharp minor – followed by 16 variations – allowing Brahms any number of permutations to rearrange its melodic and harmonic textures. Brahms meant for the piece to contain “signature” references, much like Schumann’s alter egos Florestan and Eusebius, and Brahms quotes the “Clara Wieck” theme (in Variation 10, D Major) that suffuses Schumann’s Op. 5 set of impromptus. Variation 8 offers lovely incarnation of the theme into a romantic serenade.  The ninth variation, in B minor, literally quotes from No. 5 of Bunte Blaetter. Variations 12-14 contain examples of the Brahms virtuoso style, in counterpoint, toccata, and the influence of Bach, whom Schumann adored. Variation 15 approaches Chopin for the “Aeolian harp” effect, set in the enharmonic major as G-flat. The tolling bells mark the passing of a great Romantic spirit, confirmed by the coda, which reduces the melodic content to a skeletal shadow, a moment of John Donne in music, so ask not.

Nada concludes with the F-sharp minor Sonata, Op. 2 (1852), a mighty work for keyboard that actually had been penned prior to the C Major Sonata we know as Op. 1. The experimental aspects of the writing and structure glare at us, but the vehemence of the emotional expression carries us away, as it had the Schumanns. The immediate model may well be Schumann’s C Major Fantasie, Op. 17, along with Beethoven’s A Major Sonata, Op. 101 and Hammerklavier, Op. 106. We sense a structural amalgam – its first movement lacks an exposition repeat and any sort of coda – that can barely contain the upheavals, especially in the opening Allegro non troppo, ma energico. The second movement Andante seems made from clipped melodic fragments and ornamental turns and roulades, much in the manner of an improvisation. Its hammer blows adumbrate Mussorgsky as much as they echo Beethoven.  Beethoven’s Fifth certainly fathered the Scherzo, though Brahms tries, unsuccessfully, to soften the allusion by virtue of his secondary tune. The maturity of the writing – such as it is – emerges in the Finale: Introduzione sostenuto – Allegro non troppo e rubato, which proceeds in sonata-form. The first motif makes me think of Mussorgsky’s Promenade tune, but the subsequent melody has more of Schumann’s lyricism coupled to the Brahms penchant for syncopations, especially once the martial figures emerge that soon assume “gypsy” harmonies.

For those who seek a thoughtful, technically alert evening of Brahms, without ostentation but demonstrably proficient in virtuoso technique, this, the fourth of Nada’s Brahms sets, fulfills their purpose.

–Gary Lemco

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