BRAHMS: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 1 (Christian Kohn/ Gunter Appenheimer/ Silke-Thora Matthies) (Naxos: 8.553139)
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Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Four Hand Piano Music Vol. l
To late nineteenth century German-speaking audiences Brahms was \the chosen one" of Schumann's eulogy, "over whose cradle Graces and Heroes have stood watch"; "a heavy, broad-shouldered, middle-class man, with the long beard of a professor ...with a somewhat rocking gait like an old Newfoundland dog... always ready to snap at friends and adversaries alike" (Max Graf, Composer and Critic, 1947). A century on, the American psychiatrist Peter F Ostwald (in Walter Frisch's symposium Brahms and His World, Princeton 1990), gives us a genius of opposites, a "solitary altruist". "Brahms," he says, "was a Janus-like figure who looked backward, seeking inspiration from the older Baroque and Classical traditions, while at the same time he looked forward and seemed the embodiment of modernism. A man of many contrasts, Brahms was devoted to his homeland in north Germany, but chose to live in southern Europe. He adored his parents and enjoyed family life, but never married. He was a kind and generous man, but often adopted an extremely rude manner toward others. He was fiercely independent, yet would mourn bitterly the loss of friends and relatives. He amassed a small fortune, but always lived frugally and dressed like a poor man... One thinks of other geniuses for whom the whole world became a family, Beethoven, for example, or Michelangelo. Such men can change civilisations. They give us new sounds, new visions, and new meanings. They achieve truths then become eternal."
For two hundred years piano-four-hands, the piano duet, has belonged to the domestic drawing-room. More than a few composers have learnt their classics through the medium. More than one romance has been kindled through the entwining and crossing of hands across the piano keys. Yet while the repertory may overflow in arrangements, it is surprisingly wanting in original music. Single volumes of Mozart (significant) and Beethoven (less so), three volumes of Schubert (seminally important), some Schumann (variable), the four books of Dvorak Slavonic Dances (indispensable) grace most pianos - but that is about all. Given such paucity, Brahms's contribution, dating largely from between the early (1852-66) and late (1892-93) solo piano works, is the more to be prized.
Of the works published under his own name, the E flat Variations on a Theme of Schumann, Op. 23 (Hamburg, November 1861), an intimate romantic mirror to the classic countenance of the contemporaneous solo Handel Variations, is the most substantial. For his theme (Leise und innig) Brahms turned to a melody noted down by the psychotically delirious schumann on the night of 17th February 1854. "It was [Schumann's] fixed belief," his wife Clara confided to her diary, "that angels were hovering around him offering him the most glorious revelations, all this in wonderful music; they called out to welcome us, and before the end of the year we would be united with them." This beautiful tune, published by Brahms in 1893, has since been shown to have been not so much a song of angels, still less a spiritual communication from Schubert and Mendelssohn, more rather a memory of the slow movement of Schumann's own earlier Violin Concerto for Joachim (1853), itself a recollection of the Prophet Bird (1848-49). Intrinsically pianistic, suggestively orchestral, positive rather than valedictory, Brahms's homage consists of ten purposefully characterized, firmly rhythmic variations. Six of these are in the home key, E flat; No.4 is in the tonic minor, No.5 in B major, No.8 in G minor, and No.9 in C minor. Touches of elegy colour the threnodial drum beats of No.4; Magyar flavouring inflects Nos. 6 and (particularly) 8. Most touchingly personal is the final "division", a quasi funeral march of dotted rhythms paradoxically in the major, where at the end the theme (prima part) poignantly combines with the march (seconda part) to provide for a coda of reflection and rest: "Death is swallowed up in victory" ." Admirable," thought Clara. Brahms dedicated the work to Schumann's third daugther, Julie. His younger brother, Fritz, took part in the first performance in Hamburg in October 1863.
Well-known in their later published solo piano versions, one for "clever hands and one - perhaps for more beautiful hands", the sixteen Waltzes Op. 39 (1865), first performed by Clara Schumann and Albert Dietrich at a party given by the Grand Duchess of Oldenburg on 23rd November 1866, endure among the most delicate, subtly pointed jewels of nineteenth century dance literature. Melodically charming, unpretentious, elegantly judged - a refinement of waltz, Lündler, Hungarian csárdás and carnival balls ...ebulliently, nostalgically major, urgently, yearningly minor - they celebrate a tradition famously poeticised by Schubert and Lanner. Brahms dedicated them to Eduard Hanslick, the waspish critic of the Neue Freie Presse ."I was thinking of Vienna, of the pretty girls with whom you play duets, of you yourself, who like such things, and what not". "The earnest, taciturn Brahms, the true disciple of Schumann, as North German, as Protestant and as unworldly as Schumann, composing waltzes?" replied Hanslick. "The solution to the riddle is given in one word: Vienna". "Despite his Slavic [Bohemian] descent," Graf tells us, "Hanslick was Viennese to the core. He loved the facile sensuousness of Italian arias, the wit of the French opera comique, the melodious stream of Strauss's waltzes and Offenbach's operettas, just as the careless, pleasure-seeking, brilliant, and elegant society of Vienna did. From the viewpoint of Viennese optimism he regarded Wagner, Liszt and Bruckner as rude intruders into a world of pleasure, sensuality, and easy wit. One must have met the little old gentleman at parties, have seen him joking, paying compliments to the lovely Viennese ladies, retailing the latest witticisms, and finally, after a good meal, to which he did justice like a connoisseur, sitting down at the piano and playing Strauss waltzes; then one could realise that he belonged to Viennese society in heart and mind and soul Brahms dedicated to him, not one of his weighty works, but his ...waltzes, as if he meant to say, 'Waltzes - that is your music, my friend!' The great composer was malicious even in his dedications."
Issued in 1852 by Cranz, publishers of the Strauss dynasty, under the pseudonym of a composer-collective of the time gainfully employed in the hack arrangement of light music to meet popular demand ("G.W. Marks, Op. 151"), the Souvenir de la Russie, Anh.IV/6, is Brahms's earliest surviving piece. Dating from around 1850, before his meeting with the Schumanns, it is a throwback to a not-so-distant past when his nights used to be habitually spent playing the piano in the taverns and wenching-dens of Hamburg's dockside. "Too early he came to know the active, frivolous, purchasable sexuality of the prostitute. He once told of scenes he had witnessed. of the sailors who rushed into the inn after a long voyage, greedy for drinks, gambling, and love of women, who, half-naked sang their obscene songs to his accompaniment, then took him on their laps and enjoyed awakening his first sexual feelings" (Edward Hitschmann, 1949). The music is in the form of a suite of six "transcriptions en forme de Fantaisies" on Russian and Bohemian gypsy songs. Russian National Hymn, "Hail to the Emperor", ghosted by the Rakockzy March (Allegro maestoso, after Lvoff, familiar later from Tchaikovsky). Chansonette (Andante, after Titoff, a set of variations). Romance (Con moto, after Varlomov). "The Ni