Wiederkehr ans Leben: Brahms’ Piano Music, Part I (a Hoffmannesque fantasy with assistance by Gerhard Oppitz)

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Gerhard Oppitz
Gerhard Oppitz

Gerhard Oppitz performs Brahms’ Complete (Published) Piano Works, Ozawa Hall, July 18 , 19, 25, & 26, 2012

July 18:
Sonata no. 3 in f, Op. 5
Scherzo in e-flat, Op. 4
Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79
Four Pieces, Op. 119

July 19:
Four Ballades, Op. 10
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21 no. 1
Variations on a Hungarian Theme, Op. 21 no. 2
Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 5
Sonata no. 1 in C, Op. 1

So Brahms is in the next world, lounging around the heavenly Viennese café drinking beer, eating liver sausage, and listening to the band play Gypsy music and Strauss waltzes, when St. Peter arrives with a message: Tanglewood programmers are praying that Brahms return to earth to perform his piano music, some of which is in danger of being totally forgotten. They feel that, of all the great music by all the great composers, Brahms’ early work has been the most egregiously neglected, and furthermore, Brahms’ unique style of playing has been long out of fashion and is almost forgotten, replaced by note-perfect, squeaky clean but emotionally sterile performances of pianists stamped out by the conservatory music factories for the purpose of being recorded digitally and listened to on cell-phones. Tanglewood can promise that there will be an elite group of music lovers and dedicated students who will sit worshipfully at the master’s feet if he would only agree to share his music once more on earth. St. Peter himself can think of no more important reason to breach the boundary between heaven and earth than to offer loyal music-lovers this worldly/other-worldly experience.

Philosophically bemused, Brahms puts down his cigar, trims his beard, puts on his suit jacket, straightens his bow tie, rubs his hands together, and descends to the stage of Ozawa Hall to perform four concerts of the piano music that he had deemed worthy of publication when he was still in this life, excluding his early baroque dance pieces, his special piano studies, and of course all the music that he destroyed out of zealous self-criticism. As he prepares for this endeavor, he thinks with satisfaction about his piano legacy. Here is a body of work that clearly shows how a musician grows from impetuous and ambitious early mastery, absorbing the multiple life-experiences that aid in the maturing process such as encountering a great master (Schumann), falling hopelessly in love (with his master’s wife), repeatedly experiencing heartbreak and ambivalence, renouncing the joys of family, losing dear ones, learning the lessons of the past without being smothered by them, witnessing political and cultural triumphs only to see them wither away in a few short years, always finding ways to continue to develop and refine his art, and somehow always managing to sound like the same musical personality. As his master said of him, he seemed to arrive in the world like a hero, fully armed.

Brahms’ 112 years in heaven have done a lot for his piano technique. He had given up practicing in his later years and his performances had become quite sloppy, but his heavenly sabbatical has restored him to optimal playing condition. Despite the fact that he had alienated Liszt by falling asleep while listening to that master’s Piano Sonata, Brahms retained a fascination with the possibilities of piano virtuosity and had been a great pianist himself. While he invented daunting technical challenges in his scores, the point was never simply to dazzle the audience, but always to draw it more deeply and compellingly into the musical thinking beneath the surface. While one can detect the influences of Liszt and Chopin in early works such as the very first sonata (numbered second but composed first) and the Scherzo Op. 4, Brahms always had his own way of putting his hands on the keyboard, bringing out inner voices with a rich full tone weighted toward the lower middle registers but utilizing all the regions of the piano as if it were an orchestra. Indeed, his master Schumann had prophesied very early on that Brahms was destined to compose great works for orchestra and chorus, based on his having heard those forces latent within the textures of these early piano works.

Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms

As Brahms seats himself at a new Hamburg Steinway grand on the stage of Ozawa Hall, he is reminded of the Great Hall of the Viennese Musikverein, where he had conducted for three years. The smaller dimensions and Japanese-influenced design have replaced the familiar neo-romantic architectural decor. The piano itself takes some getting used to; in its sound and action it is a far cry from the Streicher and Bösendorfer instruments Brahms knew and loved (and which are still available in heaven) with their warm, singing sound, sensitive touch, and Viennese actions. This shiny black monster is clearly a post-modern product with an ultra-bright sound, strong attack, and powerful resonance; even the earthly reincarnation of Brahms has to struggle a bit to get used to its way of responding to his desire for orchestral sonority, and he finds himself using the pedal a lot and generating more sound than he bargains for. But that does not distract him; his knowledge of his own music has not dimmed a bit in the intervening 160 (±) years since he had composed it. He had thought it out and felt it out so thoroughly that it is right here, inspiring the same deep thoughts and profound feelings, gleaming like a new Groschen.

While hanging around heaven with his cronies commenting on the new generations of musicians, which he observed from his celestial listening post, Brahms liked to quote himself: the value of a metronome marking in a score is to give you the initial tempo; after that it can be ignored.  The profound truth of this bon mot needs to be demonstrated to the talented conservatory students at Tanglewood who had been intimidated into slavishly following metronome marks by “historically informed” performers who even printed them in the notes to their recordings (of Beethoven symphonies, for example). As Brahms launches into each work or section, he plays the opening as if he has just made it up, and continues as if he were composing it on the spot, pausing to listen to a particularly eloquent note, or hurrying past a certain moment in his eagerness to discover the next new idea. There are almost no two beats alike; everything is newly invented, immediately experienced, spontaneously responded to, and yet, miracle of miracles! there is always that larger dramatic design, that great arc of thought with each detail in its rightful place. This is romantic playing that demonstrates a sense of ultimate freedom.

In shaping his programs, Brahms decides to mix earlier and later works in each concert, since the periods of production had been so radically separate. He had composed only a few piano works between 1863 and 1878; and most of the less familiar works that he was eager to bring to his new audience were those written in the 1850’s (when he was between the ages of 20 and 27). These include three large sonatas, three sets of variations, a scherzo, and a set of four “ballades.” The sonatas are the earliest, and have some awkward, static, or rambling moments mingled with an ardent romantic lyricism and sense of youthful excitement and discovery. As he performs these works, Brahms’s countenance changes to reflect these qualities— he becomes slimmer, his hair gets darker, and his beard melts away. He is reminded of his alter ego of those years—“young Kreisler”—modeled on the fictional musician created by E. T. A. Hoffmann—as well as Schumann’s flamboyant alter ego “Florestan.” In the neglected gem of this period, “Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann” Op. 9 composed when he was twenty-one, each of its sixteen variations is signed by either the extrovert Kreisler (Kr) or by “Brahms” (Br), the introspective, lyrical sub-personality. As he plays, Brahms is reminded of his life-changing encounter with the Schumanns which is memorialized in this work: the theme is from Robert’s Bunte Blätter Op. 99, composed as a tribute to Clara, the letters of whose name are encrypted within its notes. Since he has reconnected with the Schumanns in heaven, all of Brahms’s love and reverence for them is freshly felt as he plays, and he feels happy to share this profoundly learned yet human expression with new generations.

But Brahms also wants his audiences to realize what a journey he had travelled on earth by presenting later piano works alongside early ones. And so he plays on his first program the two rhapsodies, Op. 79 and the four piano pieces of Op. 119, almost the last things he composed. These final pieces demonstrate the closing of Brahms’s circle: the first (in B minor) seems like a farewell, an elegy using the same set of descending thirds that had formed the Andante of his Piano Sonata no. 3. The second embeds a sweet slow Viennese waltz within agitated outer sections. The third recalls the early scherzos but adds a touch of Mendelssohn along with humorous use of a favorite rhythmic device, the hemiola. Brahms plays this piece at breath-taking speed, unlike so many of today’s pianists who slow it down, presumably to lend it a gravitas they believe to be “Brahmsian.” Finally, the fourth and last of the set is a wild Hungarian rhapsody, appropriating the entire keyboard for orchestral grandeur, beginning with a bright major but concluding in grim minor. Brahms did not go gently into that pianistic night, but he went with a religious belief in the sacred importance of music, its historical legacy, and in his own position within it. And that was enough to get him into heaven.

As of this writing, Brahms is resting from two nights of labor in the Berkshires (similar to heaven save for the mosquitoes). He will amuse himself this weekend by performing one of his favorite works from the past, the twenty-fourth piano concerto by his beloved Mozart. In this way he can remember how much he owes to his predecessor, who may enter heaven any century now, once he completes his time in purgatory. Brahms is optimistic that Mozart will eventually arrive, and he has all the time he needs to wait for that reunion. The following Thursday he will conclude his earthly sojourn with his largest and most highly-regarded piano work, the “Variations on a Theme by Handel.” His final concerts will be dominated by later works, but he will again remind us of his youth with the earliest work of all, the Sonata in F-sharp minor, along with the Paganini Variations, arguably the most technically challenging work in the entire repertory. Both of these works’ debt to the music of Liszt will remind us that it takes a virtuoso’s technique to play Brahms’ piano music, one that transcends itself to keep attention focused on the music rather than the player.

Even the miracle of Brahms’s return to earth cannot distract us from the greater miracle: the music itself.

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