No 1: Intermezzo: Adagio
No 2: Intermezzo: Andantino un poco agitato
No 3: Intermezzo: Grazioso e giocoso
No 4: Rhapsodie: Allegro risoluto
The first three of the four Op 119 Klavierstücke are exactly such Intermezzi. The opening number, in B minor, is a ravishing Adagio which Clara Schumann (the first person to whom Brahms showed most of these late pieces) characterized as ‘a grey pearl’. It derives its material from a chain of falling thirds, a formula which Brahms used in many contexts. The main thematic idea is a downward arpeggio whose individual notes are sustained to form ambiguous vertical harmony, suggesting both B minor and D major, which is the focus of the very slightly contrasted central idea.
The second and third pieces both begin with rhythmic figures involving repeated notes: but whereas in the E minor Intermezzo (marked Andantino un poco agitato) this feature produces a nervous pulse-beat in dactylic rhythm, like a charming stammer, in the C major (Grazioso e giocoso) it produces a skittish 6/8 quaver motion with a nonchalant melody in the middle voice. Also, while the E minor Intermezzo evolves quite a large form, the central section transforming its main idea into an elegant E major waltz, the C major is shorter, with deft touches of humour, capriciously dissolving towards the end into fragile, rainbow-like arpeggios.
In contrast to these gentle Intermezzi the E flat Rhapsodie, Brahms’s last piano piece, is cast in the heroic mould traditionally associated with its key. It has much the same virile manner we encounter in his two Op 79 Rhapsodies, but it is more compressed, creating its form with a freedom and spontaneity appropriate to its late date. As a foil to the principal tune—a muscular, pounding affair in 2/4 time with asymmetrical ‘Hungarian’ five-bar phrasing—it evolves a subsidiary idea of tolling repeated notes with dissonant harmonies beneath, and an echt-Brahmsian second subject in C minor with a powerful triplet rhythm. A contrasting grazioso section is almost a parody of salon style, with its harped chords and tripping grace-notes. Brahms delays the return of the main theme, presenting witty and allusive variations of it. It makes its eventual reappearance at the Rhapsody’s climax, but is almost immediately deconstructed in the coda, which ends this otherwise ebullient work—and Brahms’s piano output—in a stern E flat minor. This, almost certainly not by coincidence, had also been the key of his earliest published piano piece, the Op 4 Scherzo.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2006