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The Italian-born pianist and Leeds competition winner Alessio Bax returns with his third solo recital disc for Signum. His programme surveys a selection of highlights from Brahms' pianistic output, charting his development from the early lyrical collection Ballades (1854) through to the 'eight perfect gems' that are the Acht Klavierstücke Op 76 (1871-78). Bax also tackles Brahms' fiendish set of Variations on a theme of Pagainini, Op 35, which Bax describes in the programme notes as one of 'the most fearsome works ever written for piano'.
Given the instrument’s centrality to his musical language (Brahms was moreover a pianist of considerable skill), a survey of Brahms’s solo piano oeuvre, as is attractively sampled on this recording, offers a unique perspective on the trajectory of his compositional career.
The 4 Ballades, Op 10 (1854), the first essays in Brahms’s significant catalogue of short works for solo piano, belong to an important early chapter of the composer’s life and artistic development: having recently befriended Robert and Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim—arguably the three most influential figures in Brahms’s monastic biography—Brahms was moreover experiencing a period of intense self-reflection and artistic breakthrough. Recognizing Brahms’s gifts, Robert Schumann had proclaimed to the musical public in an 1853 article entitled “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths) that the 20-year-old “young eagle” whom he had just discovered was “destined to give ideal expression to the times”.
In the same year as the composition of the Ballades (and, not insignificantly, the trauma of Robert Schumann’s suicide attempt), Brahms began work on the Opus 8 Piano Trio, one of the grandest contributions to the genre, and which, even before its extensive revision in 1889, revealed the voice of a self-assured Romantic. Opus 10 similarly captures the spirit of this formative period, betraying especially the absorption of Schumann’s pianistic innovations while asserting Brahms’s own voice.
Brahms had been a voracious reader since childhood with tastes skewing, on the one side, towards the German Romantic poets—Eichendorff, Heine, Geibel—and, on the other, Grimms’ Fairy Tales and other folk legends, including the stories of Faust, the Nibelungenlied (the eventual source material for Wagner’s Ring cycle), and Des knaben Wunderhorn, the well-worn collection of German folk poems that would equally fascinate Gustav Mahler. Definitively established during the composer’s youth, this spirit of German Romanticism colored by a penchant for myth would permeate much of Brahms’s music: to wit, the first of the Opus 10 Ballades, in D minor, and based on the patricidal Scottish ballad “Edward”; the Ballade’s harmonic language, given over largely to octaves, fifths, and triadic harmonies, evokes a folkloric atmosphere.
Though none of the subsequent three Ballades bears any narrative subtext, the set is compellingly linked by key relationships and an organically evolving expressive character that have led some to classify the Opus 10 as a four-movement sonata in all but name. The solemnity that begins the “Edward” Ballade gives way to a bold central section, driven by heroic rhythmic triplets (reminiscent of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) and set in D major, which foreshadows the D major Andante that follows. The gentle lyricism of this second Ballade (Brahms takes pains to mark the opening measures piano, espressivo e dolce) relieves the agitation of the first, echoing the dialogue between contrasting tempers that Schumann personified in his music as the virile Florestan and sensitive Eusebius. The Ballade is structured similarly to the first, with a contrasting Allegro middle section whose propulsive energy is cast in sharp relief against the tenderness of what came before.
The third Ballade, in B minor (the relative key of D major)—labeled Intermezzo by Brahms, and essentially the Opus 10’s scherzo movement—is likewise in ternary form, but with the structure of Nos 1 and 2 inverted: the fast and fiendish passagework that opens and closes the movement frames a delicate middle section. The set concludes with an exquisite Andante con moto in B major, whose wistful character owes much to the preponderance of B minor (including, strikingly, in the first measure). Though formally more complex than Nos 1–3, Ballade No 4 ultimately conveys an air of nostalgic simplicity.
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. (Witness the famous Hungarian Dance No 5, which appears on this recording in an arrangement by the Hungarian virtuoso Georges Cziffra, and further adapted by Alessio Bax.) 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.
By the early 1860s, the theme and variations form—which had been a crucial medium for Beethoven, among others—had on numerous occasions served Brahms as well, beginning with the slow movements of his Piano Sonatas, Opp 1 and 2. In his piano music, these were followed by Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op 9; Variations in D Major, Op 21, Nos 1 and 2; the exceptional Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op 24, which Brahms called his Lieblingswerk; and another set of Schumann Variations, Op 23, on a theme written down by Brahms’s mentor shortly before his suicide attempt. Indeed, the variations form—in which, straightforwardly enough, a central theme is followed by a set of variants thereof—would seem an apt medium for Brahms’s musical imagination, given his propensity for restless transformation of thematic ideas.
But the two sets of Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op 35, composed between 1862 and 1863, interrupt the trajectory connecting Brahms’s early piano music with the Opus 76 Klavierstücke and works following. They are an anomaly among Brahms’s piano music for their unabashed celebration of virtuosity that Brahms otherwise avoids in his writing for piano. The theme for these variations comes from Paganini’s 24th Caprice for solo violin, itself a paean to instrumental wizardry. The Variations were written for the Polish virtuoso and Brahms intimate Carl Tausig and, in their degree of difficulty, offer a flattering testament to Tausig’s abilities. Indeed, no less a virtuoso than Clara Schumann, one of the 19th century’s most celebrated concert pianists, struggled with the Paganini Variations, calling them Hexenvariationen (witch variations). Brahms seems to have acknowledged the particular nature of his Opus 35, which comprises 14 variations per book, insisting on calling them “studies for the piano”. To regard them as pedantic “finger exercises”, however (as Brahms also—but jokingly—referred to them), mistakenly ignores the broad range of Romantic expression contained in them. As much as they represent an oddity among Brahms’s piano music, the Paganini Variations can, in another way, be viewed as quintessentially Brahmsian in how masterfully they wed impeccable compositional technique and originality with searing emotional power.
Patrick Castillo © 2012
We always need visionaries who re-affirm the past and reinforce its foundations in order for us to move forward. Few composers have been able to delicately balance past and future as Brahms did in his music, and it is, in my mind, his most significant contribution. The rare combination of individuality and tradition in Brahms’s music has always fascinated me. In our fast-paced world where everything is delivered on demand for immediate gratification and easy disposal, Brahms has given us music that stays real and new and vital and lasting. The more intimate and introspective pieces like the Ballades and Klavierstücke, Op 76, reward the patient listener.
The 4 Ballades, Op 10 were written in 1854, shortly after Schumann’s attempted suicide. The first Ballade is set to the famous “Edward” Ballad, the dramatic Scottish story of patricide. A lot can be said about why Brahms chose this theme after Schumann’s harrowing action, but I will leave this to the reader’s imagination. While the other three Ballades do not have a clear program, they are unequivocally among Brahms’s most eloquent works. Stories unfold, as if told by an omniscient narrator. The Ballades are a four-part journey through deeply intimate emotions.
The 8 Klavierstücke, Op 76 represent Brahms’s first attempt to write for solo piano after a 13-year hiatus. Between the Variations, Op 35 and these pieces he composed two symphonies, as well as many vocal and chamber works. His piano writing had evolved immensely since the Ballades. These are eight perfect gems. The textures are much more layered, with the type of contrapuntal writing that became Brahms’s trademark in his later piano works. For me, these are the pianistic equivalent to a major song cycle. While painting eight individual scenes, Brahms created a unique universe with every single note in its proper place.
As Patrick Castillo mentions in his notes for this recording, the two sets of Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op 35 are among some of the most fearsome works ever written for piano. Brahms dedicated a single technical challenge to each variation on Paganini’s famous 24th Caprice: double thirds, sixths, octaves, leaps and so on. These self-imposed technical boundaries fuelled his imagination. By keeping the phrase and harmonic structure of the theme intact, rather than its melody, he had the freedom to develop each variation in a different way. At times, the sheer beauty of the newly formed melodies makes me forget that these are indeed strict variations on the Caprice. Both sets end with big virtuosic finales and follow their separate trajectories. I love performing them together; they balance each other perfectly.
I have sneaked the “naughty” double arrangement of the famous Hungarian Dance No 5 onto this disc as an encore. At the end of my recitals for the past few years I have been playing one of the two transcriptions by the Hungarian virtuoso György Cziffra. I have also been embellishing Cziffra with my own ideas, making each performance slightly different than the previous one. So this is the debut of the “official” Brahms–Cziffra–Bax Hungarian Dance No 5, as it stands today at least. It is a Hungarian Dance infused with high doses of Gypsy soul, combined with Cziffra’s amazing knowledge of the ins and outs of the keyboard.
Alessio Bax © 2012