Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Brahms Solo Piano Works

I've reached Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), one of my favorite composers. There are many CD's of Brahms' music in my collection, so I will have quite a few entries on him and his compositions.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, the son of a musician, Brahms showed early talent on the piano. In his teens he got work as a piano player in dockside brothels. It is thought that these settings gave him his lifelong aversion to women, although there were a few who stole his heart. One of those was Clara (Wieck) Schumann, about whom we will have more to say in the Brahms entries.

At the age of twenty, Brahms went on a tour as accompanist to Eduard Remenyi, a Hungarian violinist a few years older. Several months after the tour began Brahms was introduced to Joseph Joachim, a world renowned violinist, and the two hit it off. When Brahms left Joachim to continue the tour, he was encouraged to meet Robert Schumann when he reached Dusseldorf. However, at that time Brahms was resentful of Schumann, as during a concert tour which took Robert to Hamburg, Brahms had sent an envelop to Schumann to obtain his thoughts on the works. Schumann returned the envelop unopened.

After leaving Joachim, Brahms and Remenyi went to Wiemar, where Franz Liszt held court. The meeting with Liszt did not go well, prompting a split with Remenyi. Brahms went back to Joachim for a while, before setting out on a walk along the Rhine, visiting friends and relatives. He had a letter of introduction to Schumann in his pocket, though he still had sour feelings for Robert. Everywhere Brahms went, he was encouraged to pay a visit to Schumann. It wasn't until he visited someone with a collection of Schumann's scores that he had a change of heart. He found Schumann's music to be very much to his liking.

Brahms finally did visit Schumann and his wife, Clara, and the couple were amazed at the solo piano works of Brahms. He was invited to stay with them for a few weeks (an invitation he nearly turned down - it wasn't until Clara went on a search of Brahms did he realize that the Schumanns were sincere). It was during this time that Schumann wrote The Article, sometimes referred to as The Curse. Schumann a former editor and creator of periodicals dedicated to music, wrote in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik that a new prodigious talent was afoot, a new Beethoven who was "destined to give ideal expression to the times." While this spread the word throughout Europe about Brahms, the article put a lot of pressure on Brahms, which is why it took so long for him to write his first symphony.

At a San Antonio shop selling overstock books, CDs, and other media that I obtained a collection of six CDs of Brahms solo piano works. I have been listening to the first two CD's of the set, which contain the some of the works Brahms played for Schumann on the day they met. CD 1 contains the Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major, Op. 1, a Scherzo in E Flat Minor, Op. 4, and a set of Waltzes, Op. 39. CD 2 contains Piano Sonata No. 2 in F Sharp Minor, Op. 2, and Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5.

The Op. 1 sonata is an amazing work, and it is no small wonder that it impressed Robert Schumann. The first movement (an allegro) sets the stage for the entire collection, a powerful opening theme as memorable as the beginning of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. There are some wonderfully lyric passages throughout the sonata, as well as in the scherzo. The twenty-one waltzes of Op. 39 are each very short (only one of which is over two minutes long) but are really fun, too.

The second CD's sonatas are performed by Helene Grimaud. I don't have another recording with which to compare, but it seems to me that the tempi Grimaud plays are too fast in some sections, and too slow in others. Though she is undoubtedly a very talented player, her speeds take away from the performance, and the works. I may someday find another recording, to see if I am right or not.

For the works by Brahms, I plan to start with the simpler works, work up through the chamber works, then on to the symphonic works; the two serenades, the concerti, and the symphonies. I'm really looking forward to add my experiences to the blog.

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