Brahms wrote his final piano pieces—the Op 116-118 sets—four years before he died and at a time when he believed that they would be his farewell to music. These intimate works were created in 1892—a couple of years after Brahms made his will and told friends that he may no longer be able to compose. There is a strong sense of loss—it was a year in which many loved ones died, including his sister Elise and friends, the surgeon Theodor Billroth and conductor Hans von Bülow. But alongside intimations of a long and productive life closing and death approaching, represented by the descending thirds which permeate them, these works are also intimate and personal.
Stephen Hough, ever the perceptive musical interpreter, captures their improvisatory nature in his must-have latest album. He says of them: 'The final piano pieces of Brahms, twenty gems, are salon music taken to the nth degree. Yet ‘salon’ suggests a (small) audience. I don’t see anyone in the room with Brahms. In Schubert, the father figure of all such short piano pieces, however painful the melody’s turn, one senses it was shared with sympathetic listeners. In Brahms, as the nineteenth century and his life began to close down, the bearded pianist sits at the piano alone. These short masterpieces are some release, some exploration, some passing of time as the light fades and the final cigar is extinguished.'
Brahms referred to the three Op 117 Intermezzos as 'the cradle songs of my grief' and they form the backbone of this collection. Hough plays them lovingly and reflectively, with never a hint of false emotion.
There is more muscle to be found in the 10 Op 116 Fantasias, especially in the agitated Capriccios, and the triumphant Rhapsodie which closes the Klavierstücke Op 18 set and this disc, and here Hough finds the right level of emotion and never overcooks the material.
The adjective 'autumnal' is often used to describe Brahms’ late works and these little masterpieces fit the description perfectly under the fingers of Hough. But far from being his last hurrah they were followed by four more years of composing, culminating in 1896—his final year—when, following the death of his beloved Clara Schumann, he wrote his last work, the 11 Chorale Preludes for Organ.
Hough guides us through this final chapter of piano works with an unerring sense of taste.