After receiving the printed edition from the Klavierstücke Opus 118, the famous Bach specialist, Philipp Spitta, wrote to Brahms :
"Your Klavierstücke claim my attention continually. They are the most varied of all your piano pieces, and perhaps the richest in content and depth of meaning among all the instrumental works of yours that I know. Ideally they are to be absorbed slowly in silence and solitude, and they are appropriate not only for meditative afterthought but also for contemplative forethought. I believe that I have understood you correctly when I suggest this is what you meant by the “Intermezzo”. "Interludes” have antecedents and consequences, which, in this case, each player and listener has to supply himself." (22nd December, 1893).
Late autumn — harvest fruits. With these last collections of short piano pieces, Brahms takes leave from pianistic composition, and at the same time attains a pinnacle. His creative energy is undiminished ; melodic inspirations flow with such freshness that for a long time it was wrongly assumed that Brahms had drawn on early unpublished compositions for these two sets. These are "songs without words" — elegiac, even melancholic in their basic mood — reminding us sometimes of Schubert’s Impromptus. The apparent touch of improvisation has a counterbalance however, in a thematic development process of highest order, comparable to the last works of Beethoven. Each of these piano pieces evolves from a thematic germ with such masterly logic, that each note, each phrase, seems to be derived from this initial idea, and animated by it. Apparently without effort, the musical structure is interwoven with imitation, canon, inversion, augmentation and diminution, so masterfully, that the listener is hardly aware of this intellectual underlay, except perhaps by sensing that these stark dismal "paintings of an autumnal landscape" have a deeper meaning similar works by other romantic composers. Every note is unmistakably Brahms, with its lush piano sound ; notwithstanding the sensual beauty, the music keeps throughout, its own calm, inward reserve.
It was Brahms himself who named his three Intermezzi Opus 117, composed in the summer of 1892, "Three lullabies of my sorrows". The first of them bears, in the form of a motto a verse taken from "Stimmen der Völker" by Herder :
Sleep sweetly, my child,
sleep sweetly and well, so sad am I to see you cry.
Brahms’ publisher wanted to publish it separately in view of the success of the early lullaby "Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht", but Brahms opposed him. A highly structured thematic development and close inner relationship make for a richness of melodic inventiveness worthy of Schubert. Thus the central section in B major of the Intermezzo Opus 117 n° 2, for example, is completely derived from an expansion of the opening theme. To this should be added the characteristic way in which Brahms varies the repeat of an idea in his later works. The harmonic transitions from the central section to the varied reprises of the first section bear witness to his genius.
The first of these six pieces for piano Opus 118, is a pathetic, passionate prelude. The second, in A major, has become a favourite of all pianists. It has the character of an intimate, introverted love song, which could be entitled "the unanswered question". The defiant Ballade in G minor is like a late echo of the G minor Rhapsodie Op. 79 n° 2, with the significant difference that the younger Brahms’ affirmative, fortissimo closing chords are missing here. The fourth Intermezzo, a pale and foggy November landscape, is based on canonic imitation in the lower octave. The effect is that of being pursued by a shadow — your own shadow or a ghostly follower — which you can never escape. The title of No. 5, Romanze, hints at a love song ; the beloved one, however, is Death. How gentle is his lullaby, with a Berceuse as middle section which reminds us of Chopin and Schubert. The conclusion of this cycle is one of the most powerful works in piano literature. "Vanity, everything is vanity", from the book Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) seems to be the message of the finely etched main motive, whose four notes G-Flat, F, G-Flat, E-Flat, dominate the whole work. The middle section evokes an apocalyptic vision : night riders approaching irresistibly, bringing war and woe and destruction, until the original exclamation of pain is heard again, a fortissimo outcry, gradually dying away. Despite its deep gloom, this Intermezzo is suffused with such beautiful sound, and constructed with such structural perfection, that the last effect is in no way depressive ; rather, it is catharsis ; like the peroration of an antique tragedy.
Melancholy is also the dominating mood of the four Klavierstücke Opus 119. The first is based on a most beautiful musical idea : chords built by successive thirds, not in the usual upward movement, but descending, like autumn leaves floating gently to the ground. The same idea, but melodically evolved, and not building harmonies of this kind, had dominated the Andante of Brahms’ early Sonata in F minor Op. 5. But what a difference in atmosphere ! Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann, May 1893 : "To play (this Intermezzo) very slowly — is not enough said. Every bar, every note, must sound as in a retardando, as if one would like to imbibe melancholy from each single passage". The most delicate thematic tracery is at work here, with imitation and a constant interweaving of parts, and it is surely no coincidence, that Alban Berg’s piano Sonata Op. 1 ends with the same sonority and the same key. It is likewise hardly a coincidence that, at the end of the second Intermezzo, Brahms seems to conjure his late antipode Wagner, as if offering a reconciliation over the grave : this close is nearly identical, in key and atmosphere, with the spell of a summer night as evoked at the end of the second act of Die Meistersinger, "one of the most magical endings in all opera" (Hans Gál : Wagner). The character of the third Intermezzo, in C Major, contrasts completely with the others in these collections : it is a delicate scherzo, light of touch, the cheerfulness of which is tempered only by the fact that the first two pages avoid open dominant-tonic harmonies, in favour of mediant relations. Towards the end thought, the dominant is strongly asserted ; the firm pedal point is once again reminiscent of the second act of Meistersinger.
Finally, the Rhapsody in E-Flat major, a massive summation. In its dimensions and pianistic requirements, this piece is undoubtedly the weightiest in these two cycles and stands as a counterweight in major, to the great minor dirge of Opus 118 n° 6. Cast in rondo form, it is filled with strength and the assertion of life, with a serious march as first, and an enchantingly graceful serenade as second episode. And yet, the work does not ring to a close as one might expect, in triumphant major, but in a sombre yet powerful E-Flat minor, in no way depressive, but defiant, unbroken and unshakable, in its spirit, like Goethe’s Prometheus.
In the roughly 130 years since the composition of these works, the piano has been developed into an ever more powerful, brilliant instrument, rather at the expense of delicacy and beauty. This recording, though, was made on an 63-year-old Bösendorfer Imperial, considered by many pianists as one of the sweetest and most beautiful-sounding instruments to be found. While it does not attain the sheer fortissimo power of modern grand pianos, it has a wonderful richness of tone, and singing quality throughout its range, and so would seem exceptionally well suited to this type of music.Paul Badura -Skoda
Source : http://www.harmonicclassics.com/album/H_CD_1060/
Intermezzi Op. 117
1 N° 1 in E-Flat Major. Andante moderato 4:55
2 N° 2 in B-Flat Minor. Andante non troppo e con molto espressione 4:32
3 N° 3 in C-Sharp Minor 5:33
Klavierstücke Op. 118
4 N° 1, Intermezzo in A Minor. Allegro non assai, ma molto appassionato 2:15
5 N° 2, Intermezzo in A Major. Andante 5:19
6 N° 3, Ballade in G Minor. Allegro energico 3:35
7 N° 4, Intermezzo in F Minor. Allegretto un poco agitato 2:38
8 N° 5, Romance in F Minor. Andante 3:38
9 N° 6, Intermezzo in E-Flat Major. Andante, largo e mesto 5:18
Klavierstücke Op. 119
10 N° 1, Intermezzo in B Minor. Adagio 3:34
11 N° 2, Intermezzo in E Minor. Andantino un poco agitato 4:21
12 N° 3, Intermezzo in C Major. Grazioso e giocoso 1:40
13 N° 4, Rhapsody in E-Flat Major. Allegro risoluto 5:09
Paul Badura-Skoda - p