It has always seemed strange to me that someone whose life has been devoted to writing music might decide to take retirement. It would not be quite right to describe composing music as a calling, but surely it is more compulsion than occupation, and certainly more than a job. Rossini composed practically nothing for more than twenty years, only returning to composition to produce an important number of smaller works which he called his ‘sins of old age’, plus, of course, the Petite Messe Solennelle of 1863. Sibelius, too, had nothing to show for the last thirty years of his life, though a rumoured eighth symphony never saw the light of day, the manuscript probably burnt. Brahms was not yet sixty when he started to think about retiring, even to announce it to many around him. The reason seems to have been a certain satisfaction with what he had achieved and a wish to slow down and enjoy a tranquil old age, though there was surely more to it than that. In any case, it was not to be: we have reason to be thankful that hearing the clarinet playing of Richard Mühlfeld reawakened his creative drive and led to a glorious series of smaller-scale works.
Twenty short pieces are contained in these four consecutive opus numbers, and they are remarkable for their harmonic adventurousness, the complexity of their texture, and the composer’s frequent preference for pianistic figuration over melodic richness. There are many bravura moments requiring considerable technical prowess, but autumnal melancholy is more often present. Stephen Hough, in a thoughtful and charming short introduction in the booklet, invites us to appreciate the essentially intimate nature of the works, the composer communing with himself, his technique refined to the utmost degree, as the end of his life approaches. One might want to question this position: Brahms wasn’t yet 60 when these works were published, after all. In any event, Hough’s performances—which have received widespread praise—are anything but indulgent; the pianist does not, if you will, allow the composer to wallow in self-pity. Take the second piece, Intermezzo, of the Op 116 set for instance. In A minor, this can be a deeply tragic rumination or a wistful valse triste, depending on the tempo chosen and the player’s command of dynamics and phrasing. Hough achieves both, gently waltzing at the outset but not neglecting the import of the downward scale that contributes to the desolate final cadence. He achieves something similar in Op 117/3. Brahms marked this work Andante con moto, and Hough, ever careful to deliver the composer’s objective, does not neglect the ‘con moto’ marking. His interpretation passes through the whole series of emotions contained in this short piece, but the final statement of the opening theme is as darkly introspective as you will hear from any pianist. Hough’s phrasing brings out the improvisational nature of many of these pieces, and his skill at clarifying what are frequently highly complex textures is quite exemplary. The breadth of his approach can be gauged by listening to the second and third pieces of the Op 118 set. The Intermezzo is marked to be played tenderly; it would be a challenge to find a pianist who responds to that indication more readily than does Hough here. The playing is, in many respects, straightforward and communicative, but the difference between the piano of the opening and the pianissimo of the repeat of the theme at the eighth bar is very affecting indeed. The opening of the following Ballade is marked energico. Hough’s brilliant staccato touch is just what is required. There is much energy, too, in the final piece of all, the Op 119 Rhapsodie, that like Schubert’s Impromptu in the same key, begins positively in E flat major but ends in a grim E flat minor.
Many fine performances of these pieces are available, though not all so conveniently grouped together on a single disc. I am particularly attached to Nicholas Angelich in this repertoire (2006, Virgin, two CDs). He is more robust, perhaps less contemplative, than Hough, but I find these new performances just as convincing in their own way. I’m not even sure that, as I come to know them better, I won’t even begin to prefer them.
Hough’s playing has been beautifully recorded in two different venues. In addition to the pianist’s own short introduction, the booklet also contains an excellent listening guide by Misha Donat.