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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
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