Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Brahms - Rhapsody For Piano in G Minor

Like many composers in the 19th century, Brahms made his reputation by playing his own and other composers pieces on the piano.  From what I've read, he was not the most brilliant of pianists as far as technique, but he was very musical.  In his later years he hated to practice and played the premiere of his 2nd  Piano Concerto after hardly touching a piano in years.  He admitted he had better things to do than practice the piano three hours a day.

He played his own compositions to Robert and Clara Schumann in their home when he was 20 years old. Robert Schumann was not only a composer, but was an influential critic and writer.  Brahms had been on concert tour with a Hungarian violinist as an accompanist  when Joseph Joachim heard him, introduced him to Liszt and gave him a letter of introduction to the Schumanns. Schumann wrote about him in an article titled 'New Paths' in a music journal and hailed him as a genius.

Brahms continued to compose and be involved in the musical life of Hamburg, Dusseldorf and Vienna. His compositions were met with mixed results, his first piano concerto was roundly criticized and hissed at the first performance. It wasn't until he composed his German Requiem in 1868 that Brahms got his European reputation as a great composer.

A contemporary of Brahms said that he played the piano like a composer.  If his playing style is reflected in his music for solo piano, he was not a brilliant technician. his piano music is not full of scales running up and down the keyboard, but rather much of his music is dense with thick chords, with the melody embedded sometimes in an inner voice, sometimes an outer voice. This aspect of his music makes it difficult to play in its own way. Brahms piano music is not so much difficult because of technical glitter, but of musical substance and balance. Brahms had a tendency to write music in phrases made up of odd numbers of measures. Instead of 4-bar phrases Brahms many times writes 5-bar phrases. Couple this with the aforementioned thick chordal structure, and you've unlocked some of the reasons why Brahms music can sound not quite conventional, but not quite radical either. Brahms indeed found his own voice.

The Rhapsody For Piano in G minor is one of two that Brahms wrote in 1879 at the height of his popularity. It  is in many ways typical Brahms. A lot going on, danger of the melody being swamped by all the inner workings, first theme threading through the accompaniment, the Brahmsian dilemma of keeping everything in balance.  But Brahms leads the way for the pianist, as long as they remain alert and pay attention. Even the ritard at the end of the piece is worked out by Brahms, as the final six bars hold the melody in tied whole notes while the accompaniment is marked 'quasi ritard' and notated thus, with the eighth note accompaniment turning into quarter note triplets, and then to quarter notes thus creating Brahms' 'quasi ritard':

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Schumann - Piano Quintet In E-flat Major

Before 1842, Robert Schumann had written only one piece for chamber ensemble, a piano quartet in 1829, but that all changed in the year that as been called his chamber music year. After studying the chamber works of the masters, he wrote three string quartets, a piano quartet, a piece for piano trio and a piano quintet.

Schumann wrote the quintet in a few weeks during the summer of 1842. He dedicated the work to his wife Clara and she was to play the piano part in a private performance of the work in December of 1842. Illness prevented her participation, but Felix Mendelssohn took her place and in a feat of pure musicianship sight-read the piano part. Mendelssohn had some helpful suggestions for the piece after the performance, and Schumann revised  the work accordingly.

The Piano Quintet is one of Schumann's greatest works and was very influential in changing the way composers wrote for the combination of string quartet and piano. The work has music of chamber music intimacy along with music that is more symphonic. The quintet is in 4 movements:
Clara Schumann

I. Allegro brillante -  All five instruments present the driving, robust first theme. The second theme is played by piano alone, and then taken up by the violin and cello. The exposition is repeated.  The development section begins with section of transition for piano and cello. The first theme dominates the development section and the reappearance of it in its original form signals the start of the recapitulation. After the second theme the movement draws to a spirited close with parts of the first theme.

II.  In modo d'una marcia. Un poco largamente - Perhaps the most well known movement of the quintet is this funeral march in C minor. It begins with 2 bars of introduction from the solo piano, after which the first violin plays the lugubrious melody. The second violin takes up the next part of the theme, with the first violin resuming the melody until the viola takes it up. The second part of the march is repeated and ends quietly. A section of contrast begins in C major with the new theme played as a duet between cello and violin. As with the funeral march, this lyrical theme's second part is repeated. The funeral march is played through again, and after a short transition another section interrupts the march with highly agitated music in F minor that has the piano playing in staccato triplet eighth notes with biting notes in the strings. The second part of this section is also repeated. The funeral march theme returns in the viola with an increased agitation in the accompaniment. The lyrical theme returns, this time in F major. Once more the funeral march plays out, and the movement ends with the piano silent as the strings play a C major chord in harmonics.

III. Scherzo: Molto vivace -  Scampering scales cavort in the scherzo until the first of two trios is reached.  The trio is a duet in canon for violin and viola. The scherzo takes flight until the second trio is reached. This trio is full of nervous energy as the instruments play four-note motives throughout. The scherzo returns for one more repeat and a coda brings the scherzo to  an end.

IV. Allegro ma non troppo - Schumann begins the finale in the key of G minor and gradually makes his way back to the home key of E-flat major. But Schumann goes even further afield with the second subject as it is in the key of E major. Towards the end of this movement Schumann brings unity to the work by a stroke of contrapuntal prestidigitation as he brings back the first theme of the first movement as the subject of a  fugue that uses the first theme of the last movement as a counter subject, in essence a double fugue. All of this complexity gives the five instruments a very large, almost orchestral sound. The work ends in a brilliant fortissimo E-flat major chord.