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Acht Clavierstücke, Op 76

composer
1871/1879

 
Following the completion of his Opus 39 Waltzes in 1865, Brahms wrote almost no solo piano music for 13 years. During that time, he completed numerous major chamber works—the G major Sextet, E minor Cello Sonata, Horn Trio, C minor Piano Quartet, and the three String Quartets—and his first two symphonies: important masterpieces that saw a deepening of Brahms’s language and craft. With the 8 Klavierstücke, Op 76 (No 1: 1871; Nos 2, 5–8: 1878; Nos 3–4: by 1878), Brahms returned to the medium that had been so invaluable to his early career, now with a pithier compositional technique—centered on the device Schoenberg would term “developing variation” (more on which in a moment)—that lent itself to shorter forms. The Opus 76 pieces signal the mature period of Brahms’s writing for piano and foreshadow his late piano music in the compact intensity of both their form and expression.

The set alternates between works designated Capriccio, generally of a more agitated temper, and Intermezzo, which are more lyrical but no less piercing in their expressive character. The economy of Brahms’s developing variation technique—by which, in Schoenberg’s words, “variation of the features of a basic unit [i.e. musical idea] produces all the thematic formulations which provide for fluency, contrasts, variety, logic and unity, on the one hand, and character, mood, expression, and every needed differentiation, on the other hand—thus elaborating the idea of the piece”—is on display with the impassioned F sharp minor Capriccio that begins the set: from the Sturm und Drang of the turbulent introduction emerges a pregnant four-note motif. This “basic unit” proves germinal to the Capriccio, catalyzing its traversal of richly evocative terrain.

The harmonic language and rhythmic gaiety of the second Capriccio hints at the gypsy folk influence that appears throughout Brahms’s oeuvre. The élan of this second piece somewhat offsets the dourness of the first, but its playfulness remains tempered by its introspective B minor setting.

The Intermezzo in A flat major (No 3) appears, on first listen, to contain a stiller music than the preceding capriccios: Brahms instructs the player to play anmutig, ausdrucksvoll (gracefully, expressively), and the Intermezzo’s 30 measures are fittingly ephemeral; but the melody’s chromatic inflections suggest a deeper emotive complexity. Likewise the honey-voiced theme of the B flat major Intermezzo (No 4), whose lyricism is juxtaposed with an unsettled middle section, marked poco stringendo (“drawing tight”, i.e. faster and with greater tension).

The emotional centerpiece of the Opus 76 set is the Capriccio in C sharp minor (No 5), a surging rush of blood amidst the subtly nuanced miniatures preceding it. The gentle Intermezzo in A major (No 6) assuages the C sharp minor’s intensity.

The Intermezzo in A minor (No 7) further demonstrates the singular thematic unity of Brahms’s mature compositional language. The musical idea that begins and ends the movement includes, almost as an afterthought, a trail of half-step utterances that punctuate the melody. This seemingly innocuous gesture becomes a signature of the Intermezzo’s middle section (redolent, perhaps to some listeners, of Beethoven’s Für Elise).

The final Capriccio (No 8), ostensibly in C major but rife with dissonance and harmonically unsettled throughout, concludes the Opus 76 Klavierstücke with fitting ambiguity.

from notes by Patrick Castillo © 2012

Recordings

Brahms: Alessio Bax plays Brahms
Studio Master: SIGCD309Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Myra Hess – The complete solo and concerto studio recordings
APR7504Download only
Eileen Joyce – The complete Parlophone & Columbia solo recordings
APR7502Download only
Harold Bauer – The complete recordings
APR7302Download only
Harriet Cohen – The complete solo studio recordings
APR7304Download only
York Bowen – The complete solo 78-rpm recordings
APR6007for the price of 1 — Download only

Details

No 1 in F sharp minor: Capriccio
Track 5 on SIGCD309 [3'39] Download only
No 2 in B minor: Capriccio
Track 6 on SIGCD309 [3'21] Download only
Track 12 on APR6007 CD1 [3'01] for the price of 1 — Download only
Track 2 on APR7302 CD2 [3'27] Download only
Track 13 on APR7504 CD1 [3'24] Download only
Track 14 on APR7504 CD2 [3'28] Download only
No 3 in A flat major: Intermezzo
Track 7 on SIGCD309 [2'13] Download only
Track 15 on APR7504 CD2 [3'16] Download only
No 4 in B flat major: Intermezzo
Track 8 on SIGCD309 [1'56] Download only
Track 2 on APR7304 CD3 [2'30] Download only
No 5 in C sharp minor: Capriccio
Track 9 on SIGCD309 [3'03] Download only
No 6 in A major: Intermezzo
Track 10 on SIGCD309 [4'42] Download only
Track 15 on APR7502 CD2 [4'44] Download only
No 7 in A minor: Intermezzo
Track 11 on SIGCD309 [2'57] Download only
No 8 in C major: Capriccio
Track 12 on SIGCD309 [3'58] Download only

Track-specific metadata for APR7502 disc 2 track 15

No 6 in A major: Intermezzo
Artists
ISRC
GB-SAM-12-50215
Duration
4'44
Recording date
26 September 1934
Recording venue
London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Recording engineer
Hyperion usage
  1. Eileen Joyce – The complete Parlophone & Columbia solo recordings (APR7502)
    Disc 2 Track 15
    Release date: September 2011
    Deletion date: April 2014
    Download only
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