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Hyperion Records

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Track(s) taken from CDA67471/2
Recording details: July 2005
Wathen Hall, St Paul's School, Barnes, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: November 2006
Total duration: 16 minutes 0 seconds

Intermezzos, Op 117
composer
1892

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The Three Intermezzi Op 117 are products of the final phase of Brahms’s creativity. They belong to the astonishing late harvest of short piano pieces that he composed in 1892–3 and published in four collections, Opp 116 to 119. Like the quartets they were written very much with Clara Schumann in mind, for she was destined as the first pianist to see them; but their moods are autumnal, as befits the utterances of nearly forty years of love and friendship. Op 117 could be considered a triptych of lullabies. The first, in E flat, is headed by lines from an actual Scots lullaby (the Border Ballad ‘Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament’) in the German translation of Johann Gottfried Herder—and its unforgettable tune, a middle voice gently rocked within a repeated octave span, fits the words like a glove. (This wordless setting of a Scots original parallels Brahms’s early D minor Ballade, Op 10 No 1, after the Scots ballad ‘Edward’). The central section descends to a dark E flat minor tonality which increases the poignancy of the lulling reprise, with its cunningly interwoven imitation.

The second Intermezzo, in B flat minor, wrings music of plaintive delicacy from a simple falling arpeggio figure that melts, with fluid grace, through a succession of tonalities: and the piece traces a miniature sonata design, with a more smoothly flowing second subject in D flat. Development and reprise merge into one another through spiralling arpeggio figuration: the coda finally imposes tonal stability in the shape of an uneasy pedal F, over which the second idea dies away.

Like the first piece the third Intermezzo, in C sharp minor, evokes a ballad character, though this time without a specifically indicated subject. This is a comparatively spacious movement, beginning sombrely and sotto voce with a quintessentially Brahmsian theme presented in severe octaves. On later appearances this melody becomes an inner voice against a rich harmonic background; there is a strongly contrasting middle section in A major, whose gently syncopated figuration and octave displacements create a twilit world of almost impressionistic gleams and half-lights. At once one of the darkest and most beautiful of Brahms’s late piano pieces, it is now believed to be an unacknowledged setting of another of Herder’s translations of Scottish poems, a love-lament beginning ‘Oh woe! Oh woe, deep in the valley …’, which Brahms had copied out on the same sheet as ‘Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament’. But all three of these pieces seem to have had some secret significance for him: they were, he told his friend Rudolf von der Leyen, ‘three lullabies for my sorrows’.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2006

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