Wiederkehr ans Leben wiederholt: Gerhard Oppitz plays the complete piano music of Brahms, Part II

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Johannes Brahms sitting at the piano in the music room of his friends, Richard and Maria Fellinger
Johannes Brahms sitting at the piano in the music room of his friends, Richard and Maria Fellinger

Gerhard Oppitz plays the complete piano music of Brahms
(Concerts 3 and 4)

Wednesday, July 25:
Piano Pieces, Op. 118
Paganini Variations
Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79
Piano Pieces, Op. 116

Thursday, July 26:
Piano Pieces, Op. 76
Piano Pieces, Op. 117
Piano Sonata no. 2 in F-sharp minor
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24

To read Part I, click here.

As it turns out, the impression that Brahms himself was performing his own piano music at Tanglewood this summer proved to be illusory, compounded of the modest and Brahmsian demeanor of the actual performer, German pianist Gerhard Oppitz, his serious and total identification with the voice of the composer, and a certain hypnotic spell cast by his unhesitating progress from work to work, as if to say “and then I wrote…”. Oppitz’s performances showed characteristics that would be easy to ascribe to Brahms himself: a completely unfussy treatment of details to keep attention on the large structural sweep of each composition, of which he maintained a clear and magisterial vision at all times; a coloristic differentiation between secondary harmonic figuration and foregrounded contrapuntal activity; and a refusal to be brilliant simply for the sake of being brilliant. What might have appeared casual or even at times careless was the by-product of this focus on structure. This is not to imply that there was any slighting of expression: Oppitz/Brahms understood that in music constructed with such profound care and logic, it is the larger shapes rather than the individual moments, however striking, that provide the most powerful and lasting forms of expression.

The gestures of solo piano music range from private and intimate to grandiose and extroverted. This continuum might be thought of in connection with the space in which the music is heard. Solo keyboard music has been the exemplary form of home music-making (along with accompanied song) since before keyboards were pianos, and this tradition continued through the mid-twentieth century, when guitars significantly began to replace pianos. Such a domestic function conjures up the more intimate pole of keyboard composition, but does not exclusively imply it — a glittery piece of virtuosity serves well to display the home-grown prodigies talents to the assembled dinner guests, while the simplicity of Chopin’s A major Prelude can cause 2500 people in Carnegie Hall to hold their collective breath for its brief duration. But there is still that implied association of bravura with public performance that is largely borne out by the styles of romantic piano music.

Hearing Brahms’s piano music as a whole allows us to experience the full gamut of gestures, and the decision to mix early and late pieces on each program highlights the contrasts, although it obscures the issue of chronology; the interested audience member needs to heed the opus numbers and their associated dates to reconstruct each work’s position within the oeuvre. The resulting impression is that this music rarely seems exclusively destined for either home or concert; there is usually a sense of mixed message, as there is not, for example in the music of Liszt. Ultimate bravura is found in the Paganini Variations, but even here, there is a caveat: its two books seem like a collection of etudes to be wrestled with and conquered by the pianist in the privacy of the studio. Public performance is more a demonstration of the victory rather than a grand musical experience. (Brahms’s own comments on the work bear out his goal of creating an almost impossible task for the performer.)

The work that is most clearly at home on the concert stage, that makes a grandiose rhetorical gesture toward a collective listener, is the one that was performed last, a kind of apex of the entire four evenings of music, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24. With its twenty-five sections plus grand culminating fugue, it is a work meant to be heard in public and judged against the epoch-making predecessors by Bach (Goldberg Variations) and Beethoven (Diabelli Variations). It is a literal tour de force, conveying us through the most varied landscape of learned and popular genres and techniques, never losing sight of the need simultaneously to entertain, impress, and educate the listening public while building a grand arch of musical development. The variation format allows for a stunning variety of textures and sonorities exploiting the newly developed capabilities of the (relatively) modern concert grand piano; and Brahms constantly draws on his popular “Hungarian” (actually Gypsy) mood to keep the energy level elevated.

The “Handel” Variations is both an apex and a crossroads. Preceding it are the rarely heard sonatas and variation sets; experiencing them as part of the complete piano oeuvre acted as a useful corrective to the clichéd view of Brahms as an “autumnal” composer, a view that might be more or less appropriate (if a bit too general) to the later piano music, from Op. 76 on. A particularly striking idea of how different the young Brahms could be (more Florestan than Eusebius, to use Schumann’s alter egos) is supplied by his first published work, the Sonata no. 2 in F-sharp minor, also heard on the final concert (in what was a particularly canny act of programming). Composed before encountering the Schumanns, and then published on Robert’s admiring recommendation, this sonata seems to point to the road not taken. It is replete with grandly extroverted Lisztian pianism: dramatically throbbing chords under operatic vocal-style melodies; thundering octave passages; slippery chromaticism that sounds Wagnerian rather than like the modal chromaticism of Brahms’s maturity; an elusive and innovative sense of structure that blurred formal outlines; and a motivically-based cyclic form. In the authoritatively convincing performance offered, the work took on a new fascination as a surprisingly successful experiment in 1850’s progressive composition. One wonders whether Brahms’s trajectory might have been dramatically different had not Schumann anointed him the next knightly hero of the symphonic tradition.

The middle and late sets of shorter pieces show the composer as free from the concert-hall conventions of the later nineteenth century. They lend themselves to personal statements that often suggest an intimate space between composer and listener, even when heard in concert. These pieces should be performed with a sense of personal investment and involvement; they call for strong interpretive gestures for which there is a wide range of possibilities, and much room for the performer to construct a statement as much out of his own emotional engagement with the underlying musical thought as with precise details of the notated score (of course, one can do both). Particularly interesting is the challenge of shaping the complete set, and of determining how much and what kind of connection there is among the separate pieces. The eight compositions of Op. 116 have been shown to fit together into a larger harmonic and melodic plan, with a very purposeful juxtaposition of the stormy, Kreislerian Capriccios (positioned as framing material) with the moody and introspective Intermezzos. Works like the Intermezzo in E minor (no. 6) are as strange and unconventional as anything Brahms wrote; it is hard to imagine them outside the context of the whole set. But most of these late pieces are performed as stand-alones in piano recitals, and they are effective as character-pieces, even encores. The question of shaping a whole set as published requires interpretation at a higher order of structure.

Gerhard Oppitz has a definite point of view about Brahms, one that could arguably be close to that of the composer himself. It is characterized by structural thinking about the largest dimensions of the music. The Op. 76 piano pieces are usually described as a miscellaneous collection, arranged to provide variety of key and mood. It begins and ends in radically different keys (F-sharp minor to C major) and includes grand gestures, a folk-style dance piece, densely-woven meditations, and another one of those idiosyncratic fragment (no. 4) that doesn’t reveal its key fully until it is over.It had never occurred to me that this might have been designed ab ovo as a set, but Oppitz’s presentation made a strong case to hear it this way. As with the later sets, he clearly emphasized over-all form, and displayed the complementary shapes and characters of individual works, so that there was a constant sense of each piece as a beautifully-considered response to the preceding one. The result was a satisfying sense that the eight pieces possessed a dramatic structure very much parallel to the more explicit one of Op. 116.

Over the course of four evenings, Oppitz’s musical predilections were revealed: he thinks in terms of large dimensions, and keeps musical events pointing forward, refusing to sacrifice the momentum and build-up for the sake of a tasty detail that a different pianist might choose to linger over. The results served Brahms positively, offering a view that a different performance, heard in a different programmatic context, would not make available: that Brahms’s music does not fit neatly into the existing generic categories. It all turns out to be entirely suitable for concert presentation, including the short pieces which, when presented in complete sets, take on a larger life and meaning; at the same time, Brahms’s writing for piano consistently juxtaposes outreach and virtuosity with layers of thoughtfulness and emotional complexity, the one solidifying and projecting the other in a unique balance. Brahms is often described in terms of contradictory qualities: as projecting the ambivalence of an introvert forced to work in large public forms, of one nostalgic for the great music of the past continuing to develop innovative approaches to harmony, form, and motivic development. Another view, one emerging from this immersive experience, is that Brahms mediates these contradictions and finds his own balance amid the competing forces of a complex moment in music history, on the cusp of a new musical era.

To read Part I, click here.

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