Recorded on 07/17/2007, uploaded on 01/26/2012
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
For reasons unknown, Johannes Brahms left behind the tradition of large-scale piano works roughly a decade into his career. His three sonatas, though staples of the repertoire and essays in the genre that alone perhaps are worthy to stand alongside the sonatas of Beethoven, were all composed at the start of his career. Indeed, his Piano Sonata No. 1 is one of the pieces responsible for drawing the admiration and support of Robert Schumann in launching Brahms’s career. Leaving behind the sonata, Brahms turned to large-scale variations sets, such as those on a theme of Handel and Paganini’s famous Caprice No. 24. This last named work, composed in 1863, was his last extensive work for the solo piano.
In 1878, Brahms returned to composing for the instrument. This time, however, his creativity found outlet in the form of the Romantic miniature, a type of composition begun in the early part of the century, developed at the hands Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn, and can be argued to have reached perfection with Brahms. The result was his 8 Klavierstücke, op. 76. These were not his first miniatures for the piano—nearly a quarter-century earlier he composed his opus 10 ballades. Yet, the pieces of opus 76 are quite distinctive from that earlier work. By now, Brahms was the complete master of his craft. He possessed a keen sensitivity to the relationship between material and form, subjecting with ease the expectations of the former to the demands of the latter. Furthermore, the heroic qualities of his earlier works were abandoned in favor of an introverted exploration of emotion and technique.
The eight pieces of opus 76 fall more or less into two varieties in equal number—capriccios and intermezzi. The former are extroverted and often lively, energetic pieces; the latter are more subdued and introverted. The titles, however, bear no relation to an expected form, but seem to serve simply to indicate the general mood of the piece. The set opens with a Capriccio in F-sharp minor, a mysterious and restless piece, which is followed by another in B minor in Brahms’s best gypsy style. Two intermezzi then follow. The first, in A-flat major, juxtaposes two different ideas—one, delicate and furtive; the other, with rich textures and a curious passion to it. The second, in B-flat major, is lyrical, yet darkly hued. Beginning the second half of the set, the Capriccio in C-sharp minor is a rhythmically agitated piece full of intensity. The following A major intermezzo, though a respite from the previous capriccio, possesses nonetheless its own unsettled passion. While it is lyrical, its middle section becomes somewhat restless, attempting to break free of the calming outer sections which frame it. In A minor, the next intermezzo is a melancholy piece. Lastly, the closing capriccio, in C major, is the most demanding of the set. Whereas the C-sharp minor capriccio was the emotional epicenter of the set, this last piece forms the exhilarating close. Joseph DuBose
The Steans Music Institute is the Ravinia Festival's professional studies program for young musicians.
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