Release date: 27 October 2023
In 1853, a twenty-year old piano virtuoso and budding composer knocked at the door of Robert and Clara Schumann. That encounter would prove epoch-making for all people involved, but also for music history in general. With his typical generosity and broad-mindedness, Schumann warmly welcomed the young man, and, upon hearing him playing and making an opinion of his compositions, he was quick to hail him publicly as the next genius in the musical world, publishing a famous article on the journal he had founded. That young pianist and composer was, of course, Johannes Brahms. From that moment on, he became an integral part of the Schumann household. Although he was never Schumann’s “pupil” in the common sense of the word, Brahms still learnt enormously from his daily encounters with both Robert and Clara. From the human viewpoint, he profited very much from the loving and joyful climate of the Schumann home, with many young children and a married couple passionately in love. Of course, there were also many thorns; not all days were idyllic, and, when the first signs of mental illness appeared in Robert, tragedy loomed on the entire household – up to the last, heart-rending years when the once brilliant mind of Robert seemed lost in dreams and fantasies.
There was also Brahms’ undeniable attraction for Clara: still, both of them were always very careful not to let this turn into love, neither during Robert’s life nor after Clara was left a widow. Theirs was a unique, warm friendship, based on mutual esteem and sympathy, and, most importantly, on their shared love for music and on their exceptional understanding of all things musical.
That friendship was to last until Clara’s death, which predated only slightly Johannes’. Brahms’ last masterpiece, the Vier ernste Gesänge, was dated on what would become Johannes’ last birthday, and was dedicated to the memory of Clara, who had but recently passed away.
Between these two moments, nearly the entire second half of the nineteenth century elapsed. And, with it, Johannes Brahms’ fulgid career. A career which was mainly in the field of composition, with corollaries in conducting, teaching and research in what we would now call musicology and philology of music. Brahms’ career as a pianist was much less impressive, even though his pianism was – as far as we know – no less brilliant than that of the greatest Romantic virtuosos.
The problem was what were Brahms’ pianistic goals. Whilst for other pianist-cum-composers of his age composition was functional to receive greater acclaim as a virtuoso – i.e. they wrote pieces which could earn them applause and fame for the exceptional feats they demonstrated – for Brahms it was the other way around: playing was a means for letting the spirit of the work emerge. Thus, the premiere of his First Piano Concerto, played by the composer himself, did not meet with universal approval, since Brahms’ pianism was deemed by a critic to be “behind times”. The point was another, however. Brahms’ First Piano Concerto does not demand less virtuosity than, say, Liszt’s no. 1 or Chopin’s no. 1 (probably more than Chopin, actually). But it is a concealed kind of virtuosity, in a manner of speaking. Brahms’ op. 15 is more a symphony with obbligato piano than a Romantic concerto proper; the pianist toils and labours, but the results of this toil and labour are hardly self-evident to the listener.
And this attitude would only become more pronounced with time, as Brahms diminished – until he definitively quit – his activity as a concert pianist, and as his compositional style evolved further. It is meaningful, however, that one of the greatest piano virtuosi of the time, i.e. Clara Schumann herself, nourished unconditional admiration for her friends’ piano works.
There is a major gap between Brahms’ youthful piano works and those of his mature age. This is not just a chronological gap, significant as this may be (and significant it is). It also concerns the overall attitude. If indeed Brahms’ attitude to virtuosity was never that of a Liszt, or a Thalberg, actually his first piano pieces did not eschew the spectacular. That dimension, instead, is almost entirely missing from his last piano works.
Not only that. With his Piano Sonatas and his First Piano Concerto, Brahms was also trying his hand at the great Sonata Form, pursuing his dream to write a symphony which could continue in Beethoven’s footsteps. That dream would take him forty years to be fulfilled, and while Mendelssohn’s first string symphonies date back to his teens, Brahms would send his First Symphony in the world only as a mature man of forty.
By way of contrast, Brahms’ late piano works explore the dimension of the miniature, almost of the aphorism. True, other Romantic composers would push that dimension much more daringly than him: some pieces included in Schubert’s or Schumann’s piano cycles last barely a handful of seconds. But for a composer with Brahms’ mastery of the large, huge form, this reductio was almost an ascetic feat.
He would come back to his beloved piano as a solo instrument only in the last fifteen years of his life. And the results of this renewed interest would take the form of Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces: a collective title embracing pieces which could be individually named Rhapsodies, Intermezzi, Capricci, etc.), or of short collections of pieces of just one genre (Intermezzi). However, debate is still lively among musicologist as to whether Brahms had composed some of the pieces included in the collections recorded here at an earlier date or not. The Piano Pieces collected as op. 76 were written mostly in the summer months of 1878, which Brahms was spending at Pörtschach. This would be a common trait of Brahms’ late output: he was free to compose almost only during the summer months, when the hassle of the city and of its demands was far away, and the relaxed rhythms and delightful landscapes of the mountains and lakes stimulated his creativity.
We do know, however, that the first Capriccio in this collection predates the others, since an earlier version of this piece is found in an autograph of 1871, which constituted a present for Clara on the occasion of her wedding anniversary. (Interestingly, Brahms was celebrating his friends’ wedding anniversary when she had been widowed for decades already!).
It has been suggested that the idea of collecting and publishing short piano works came to Brahms from his activity as a scholar, who was supervising the publication of similar collections by composers such as Schumann and Chopin. The finished pieces were performed or sent by Brahms to some of his most trusted friends: Clara, of course, but also Elisabeth and Heinrich von Herzogenberg, and Theodor Billroth, a longtime friend of the composer.
The collection’s original concept included a different order of the pieces, which were later moved and displaced without leaving us a clue as to the reasons behind Brahms’ choice. In spite of his work of collecting and composing these piano pieces – a work clearly intended for publication – Brahms seemed in no hurry at all to see the works printed. And this, understandably, was something his publisher did not like too much. We have letters sent from Simrock to Brahms, where Simrock resorts to all kinds of ironical threats in order to stimulate the composer to send the pieces. Simrock even envisaged the creation of a “Society against Cruelty to Publishers” (after those for the protection of animals!), given Brahms’ unnerving habit of promising mouth-watering works and then never sending them.
The variety of styles and atmospheres found in Brahms’ op. 76 leaves room for a no less nuanced, but much more restricted palette in his later works. Starting in 1892, he wrote four piano cycles (opuses 116, 117, 118 and 119) consisting only of short piano pieces, where the dominant mood is that of nostalgia. Far from flattening down the emotional range, though, this concentration on just one major thread allows the composer to explore all shades, even the most minimal ones, of this feeling. The Three Intermezzi op. 117 are typical from this viewpoint. Here, by Brahms’ explicit admission, we contemplate the mourning of what could have been and has not. This is epitomized by the motto employed by Brahms for no. 1, and which is much more than a mere motto. It is derived from a Scottish song by the title of Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament, which had been translated by Herder. Simrock wanted to have this piece printed individually as “Lullaby or Slumber Song”, and Brahms observed: “You would have to place next to it Lullaby of a Wretched Mother or of an Inconsolable Bachelor, or next to characters by Klinger: Sing, o Lullabies, of my grief!, nos. 1, 2 and 3”. Behind Brahms’ ironical tone, it is evident who the “inconsolable bachelor” could be: one who had played with his friends’ children, had sent music to his widowed friend for the anniversary of her wedding, and had seen his own life grow old without a stable affection and a family of his own.
Op. 119 was written the following year, 1893, in Ischl; its individual movements were sent to… Clara as the work progressed. Clara had no piano at her disposal for some time, so she asked him to wait for a while, and then sent him the green light signal. She was enthused by all the pieces she received, and she once again wondered as to how her friend Johannes could make such musical magic with such short pieces and such seemingly unpretentious materials.
These collections, in fact, are similar to pearl necklaces: there is not a single piece which fails to conquer and enthrall the listener. In spite of a mood which is often sad or depressed, they also convey an absolute tenderness, a hope beyond hope, and the expression of a soul who is deeply enamoured with life. Brahms could look back to his life with many regrets, and so he probably did – not for him Edith Piaf’s je ne regrette rien! –; but, at the same time, these astonishingly beautiful piano pieces also reveal the deep goodness and mercifulness of his gaze upon life. There could have been missed opportunities or failures; but all was encompassed and embraced by love at its purest.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023
Italian born pianist, Lucia Paradiso is a concert pianist and teacher active in Rome, in Italy.
She plays regularly as soloist in Italy and abroad. She graduated with the highest honors from Matera Conservatory of Music, Foggia Conservatory of Music and in Chamber Music from Santa Cecilia in Rome. She regularly studies under the artistic guidance of M Alessandro Daljavan.
She played as a soloist with Puglia e Basilicata Orchestra, Orchestra Sinfonica Santacroce in Rome, Banda dell’Esercito italiano.
In 2021 he begins a concert tour with the project dedicated to the piano music of Johannes Brahms. The project was carried out at the Auditorium in Velletri, Museo Napoleonico in Rome, Monferrato Classic festival in Turin, Gothe Institute in Venice, and in Germany in the cities of Bonn and Berlin, in 'T Mosterdzaadje Santpoort-Noord (Netherlands), in Foundation Eutherpe in Leon (Spain).
In 2023 she is invited to London for three concerts to perform compositions by Nimrod Borenstein on the piano.
Lucia Paradiso is constantly dedicated to chamber music: she is an enthusiastic chamber musician, playing regularly in ensembles. Since 2020 she plays in "Trio Caecilia” violin, flute and piano in some of most prestigious location and Foundation in Italy such as IUC- Istituzione Universitaria Concerti in Rome, Auditorium del Gonfalone in Rome, Auditorium Pedrollo in Vicenza, Sala Accademica in Rome, Trevignano Proms.
She is currently teacher of Piano courses at the R.Franci Conservatory of Siena (IT).
She works as an accompanist pianist at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory, supporting instrument classes in teaching activities, for competitions and Masterclasses.
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.