The outward appearance of Johannes Brahms is well documented, throughout his entire life, by a series of painted, drawn and photographed portraits, which reveal (not unlike the self-portraits constantly painted by Rembrandt) how life writes itself on the face of human beings. As a young man, Brahms was extremely handsome; his portraits exude a sense of self-confidence, of youthful and almost heroic energy, together with an unmistakably honest and transparent expression. The music he wrote in those same years is quintessentially Romantic, meaning that it represents the contrasts, outbursts, passions and extreme feelings of the Romantic era.
As the years went by, the portraits by Brahms increasingly became those of a wise man, whose imposing beard lends him an almost prophetic or priestly air, but who evidently maintains in his eyes – though increasingly hidden by massive eyebrows – a fiery and impassionate nature. And the music he wrote in his later years is also quintessentially Romantic, but in an utterly different fashion as that of his earlier years: here, Romantic indicates the consuming, unquenchable, persistent and infinite nostalgia which permeates the music, the poetry and the visual arts of Romanticism.
And while the youthful passions of the youthful Romanticism were expressed in music by many other great musicians (such as Chopin or Schumann) who succeeded in depicting the sound of heroism, passion and ecstasy, Brahms is probably a standalone as far as the infinite nostalgia of old age is concerned. This may be due to the fact that he lived longer than the other great Romantic composers (though, paradoxically enough, the only other musician who was able to describe nostalgia as effectively as Brahms was Schubert, who was barely thirty-one when he died); or to the fact that he was born somewhat later than the others, and thus saw the sunset of the nineteenth century and the dusk surrounding the hopes of the earlier generation; or simply to his character, which was shaped by life just as happened to his physical appearance.
Be it as it may, the late works by Brahms are one of the best musical expressions ever written for the feelings of loss, regret, loneliness and for the pain of ageing; for that typically German word, Sehnsucht, whose meaning intertwines desire with longing, an aspiration for the infinite with the grief arising from the realization of the irretrievability of the past.
Brahms’ late works are not always veiled in darkness, of course; however, their light is never the full, shining light of a summer midday, but rather the caressing light of an autumn sundown. Both the colours of autumn and those of sunset may be friendlier and warmer than the brighter shades of their younger and more energetic counterparts; yet, they are tinged with a bittersweet nuance, which never leaves room for the carefree dreams of the young. There are lullabies, in Brahms’ late output; but their infinite tenderness acquires a heartbreaking dimension when one realizes that they are the lullabies for the children Brahms never had. There is hope, too; but it is the kind of hope which can be expressed only by those who have experienced the full gamut of grief.
All of these feelings are perfectly embodied by the two masterpieces recorded in this Da Vinci Classics production, i.e. the two Sonatas op. 120.
Brahms’ routine, in his mature years, was to spend the summer months in some idyllic place in the mountains, where he would compose, surrounded by nature; during the winter months, he could not find the same kind of concentrated attention, and so he rather performed, conducted or edited his compositions. However, by the early 1890s, Brahms had decided that his compositional activity had come to an end: in 1891, he had written to his publisher Simrock, sending him a copy of his last will and testament, and explaining that the last of his Volkslieder (“Verstohlen geht der Mond auf”), which portrayed the image of a dog chasing its tail, represented the closure of a circle, the completion of an orbit, the end of his creative stage.
This circular image seems to allude to Nietzsche’s eternal return, and to the despairing feeling of imprisonment and of an inescapable fate it embodies. However, in spite of what Brahms himself had decided, the last word had not yet been written, and the circle was not as close as it appeared.
The unforeseen showed itself in the person of Richard von Mühlfeld, solo clarinettist in the Orchestra of Meiningen; a virtuoso of the instrument, who was gifted with an extraordinary tone, deep, expressive, intense and warm. It was the sound of autumn, the reddish sound of the leaves whose most beautiful colours appear as they are ready to fly from their trees. It was the right sound for Brahms’ mood. The clarinet was a relatively young instrument, and its repertoire did possess already some unsurpassable gems (such as the masterpieces by Mozart), though many timbral and technical possibilities remained still unexplored. Mühlfeld was willing to investigate them, and the union of the “right sound”, of compositional challenges, and of a first-rate performer ignited Brahms’ imagination. Thus, he started to compose a series of unforgettable pieces for the clarinet, such as the Trio op. 114 and the B-minor Quintet op. 115. After them, there came the last collections of piano pieces, one greater than the other; and, finally, almost as an afterthought, the two Sonatas op. 120 and the Chorale Preludes for the organ. (As an aside, it may be said that the fact that Brahms’ “very last” word was represented by religious pieces is a further ray of hope breaking the anguishing Nietzschean circle he had imagined a few years earlier).
These two Sonatas were conceived by the composer with Mühlfeld’s tone in mind; yet, from the very outset, Brahms created a twin version for the viola (and a lesser-known one for the violin, which departs more radically from the other two versions). Brahms wrote them in 1894, once more when on holiday at Bad Ischl; he asked Mühlfeld to join him in order to rehearse them, but it was only in September that they were able to see each other in Vienna, and to play the freshly-composed pieces. Later on, they performed them privately for Duke Georg (Mühlfeld’s employer), and for Clara Schumann, for whom Brahms had always nourished love, affection and an intense and deep respect. Evidently (and understandably) the pieces pleased both the clarinetist and the first listeners, so that a public premiere was scheduled for the beginning of 1895; paying homage to Mühlfeld’s gifts (which had prompted the creation of such beautiful music, and had almost forcibly extracted Brahms from his creative exile), the composer surrendered his rights to the performer, thus sealing in a very explicit fashion the relationship of friendship and mutual esteem which had fostered the composition of these pieces.
The two Sonatas are markedly different from each other, though both are relatively concise, and neither features those climaxes of excitement which appear so frequently in the Cello Sonatas or in the D-minor Violin Sonata.
Here, we find that “amiability” which appears also in the tempo indication of the first movement of op. 120 no. 2; a good-natured gaze which embraces the past and is capable of transforming even the deepest regret into benevolent and merciful compassion. The F-minor Sonata is darker in tone, with moments of serious intensity, tension and tenderness, but also with a pre-Mahlerian transformation of dance-rhythms into a symbol for the caducity of life. By way of contrast, the E-flat major Sonata is full of remembrance; the concluding variations are a masterful exploration of the possibilities of nuancing a theme through slight changes in tempo, harmony, rhythm and melody. Brahms (following in Beethoven’s footsteps) had studied the form of variations for his entire life, and these enchanting examples from his latest years embody an unsurpassed compositional wisdom, knowledge and ability.
They also symbolize the itinerary of life, which is (just like a Theme and Variations) a fascinating intertwining of repetition and changes; the “theme” which Time plays for us every day is constantly changed by the great and small things of life, which adorn the days and transform them continuously.
Thus, with these two masterpieces, Brahms gave us a touching and enchanting perspective on how art, beauty and friendship may turn even the loneliness of ageing into a new spring, in which there is still room for blossoms of perfect artistry as the two Sonatas op. 120.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Born in Empoli in 1978, Cioli started violin at six years old. At the age of 14, she began to study the viola at the conservatory of music L. Cherubini in Florence under Augusto Vismara, and graduated with honours in July 1999. She specialized in chamber music under Bruno Canino and the viola under Thomas Riebe at Mozarteum in Salzburg (1999) and under J. Bashmet at the Chigiana Academy of Siena for two years, 1999 and 2000, on scholarship. From 2004 to 2007 she studied with Bruno Giuranna at Stauffer School in Cremona and at the Chigiana Academy of Siena and for one year with Hatto Bayerle at the music school of Fiesole. In 1995 she took part in the Orchestra Giovanile Italiana at the music school of Fiesole for two years, attending the orchestra and chamber music courses. In August 1999 she won the first prize with special honour in the viola competition in Vittorio Veneto. In 2002 she won the competition Del Vecchio reserved for the best graduates of the conservatory of music L. Cherubini of Florence. She played for the Teatro Comunale of Florence and she received the first classification at the end of the lyric/symphonic instrumental training course Mimesis MaggiArte at the Teatro Comunale of Florence, under the supervision of Zubin Mehta. From February 2001 to January 2003 she was a member of the "Quartetto Foné" which performed intensively in the most important music institutions and theatres, in Italy and abroad. She collaborated with other chamber music ensembles like Contempoartensemble and Ensemble Cherubini, which toured the United States. In 2008 – 2009 she was violin teacher at the music school Mabellini of Pistoia. In 2011 she graduated also in violin at the conservatory of music L. Refice of Frosinone. In 2007 she won the competition for viola section in the Orchestra Regionale Toscana where she currently plays.
Born in Empoli (Italy), Boldrini is an eclectic musician who alternates his activity as a pianist, conductor, composer and organist. Graduated at the Cherubini Conservatory in Florence with maximum grade and “cum laudum” in piano, organ and composition. He studied and perfected his technique with Bruno Canino, Vincenzo Balzani, Paul Badura Sckoda and Pier Narciso Masi. Absolute winner of more than fifty important national and international piano competitions, He is requested alongside musicians such as Katia Ricciarelli, Andrea Bocelli, Bruno Canino, O. Balan, Franco Mezzena and orchestras like the Bacau Orchestra, Craiova Orchestra, Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Formazione, Symphonic Opera Orchestra of the Theatre Giglio di Lucca, Viotti Chamber Orchestra, Baskent University Orchestra of Ankara, Philharmonic Orchestra of Medellin. Toured all over the world, playing in prestigious hall such as Carnegie Hall (New York), CRR Concert Hall (Istanbul), Roman Philharmonic Hall, Kioko Hall (Tokyo), Munich Kunstlerhaus, Centro Ferruccio Busoni, Schloss Ribbek Festival (Berlin), Seoul National Theater, Museum of Musical Instruments (Lisbon), Cantoral Auditorium and Teopanzolco Auditorium (Mexico), and he has taken part as a pianist at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Festival. Appreciated composer, he wrote several works for piano and orchestra, performed in numerous festivals and concert seasons. He recorded the full 88 Sonatas by Cimarosa on fortepiano, the world premiere of the Concerto op. 214 and op. 153 by Czerny, various concerts for piano and orchestra by Clementi, Cimarosa, Cambini, Jommelli and Paisiello, and the Sonatas for piano and cello by Martinu (Brilliant Classic). Lately, he has also recorded for famous labels like Amadeus, Wide Classique and Da Vinci Classics. His Stabat Mater and his operas L'Amante and Il Formaggio were recently recorded for Movimento Classical. He is the artistic director of Italian Opera Florence.
Johannes Brahms: (b Hamburg, 7 May 1833; d Vienna, 3 April 1897). German composer. The successor to Beethoven and Schubert in the larger forms of chamber and orchestral music, to Schubert and Schumann in the miniature forms of piano pieces and songs, and to the Renaissance and Baroque polyphonists in choral music, Brahms creatively synthesized the practices of three centuries with folk and dance idioms and with the language of mid- and late 19th-century art music. His works of controlled passion, deemed reactionary and epigonal by some, progressive by others, became well accepted in his lifetime.