In my conducting days (1972-1994), I would frequently surprise some of my piano colleagues by knowing more of their repertoire than they did. I was a terrible pianist, prompting legendary performer/pedagogue Jean-Paul Sevilla to declaim, “Can’t play piece for babies” with my attempt at a Bach Invention (still, he taught me more than he may have realized). At a very early age (16), I became enamoured with Brahms either full bore (Symphony No. 1, Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra) or through all manner of pianists acquainting me with the solo piano repertoire.
With Victor Rosenbaum’s recent release of the master’s last thoughts on “small’ piano works, a flood of memories have been rekindled, even as fresh insights offer still more understandings/learnings. And doesn’t the world owe a debt of gratitude to clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld’s superb artistry drawing Brahms out of retirement starting with Op. 114, the Clarinet Trio.
Intermezzo, E-flat Major
Quietly matter of fact, deliciously dark transition, prior to yearning, haunting episodes before a welcome return, marvellously understated and a heartfelt adieu. A lullaby for all ages of the highest order.
Intermezzo, B-flat Minor
So delicate and appropriately rhapsodic; relatively sunny middle section finally yields to a “magical” conclusion.
Intermezzo, C-sharp Minor
Always knows where it’s going, this last hurrah defines misterioso. Then, how to define introspection? Just listen; even—like ourselves—the music is never quite at ease. Rosenbaum knows all of this and more. Everything is beautifully voiced, leading to misterioso 2 and a very fond adieu.
Intermezzo, A Minor
Passion indeed, infused with heady push and pull that make these few minutes vanish. How very hopeful that the anguish finally finds peace.
Intermezzo, A Major
Change of both mode and emotion, delicately voiced and a very thoughtful tempo. Surprised at the slow pace at first, I soon understand the wisdom. Rosenbaum deftly lets the bass sing in the middle section as needs be. Especially spectral is “una corda” and a change of register that dramatically prepares the way for a seamless return, and finally, niente.
Ballade, G Minor
Here is the perfect foil to the previous two Intermezzi, definitely reinforcing the notion that Op. 118 must be taken as a whole, not thought of individually. Both Brahms and Rosenbaum revel in the power and drive, magnificently balanced by liquid legato then the miracle of B Major (more likely C-flat Major to my ears). The slight recall, like a memory briefly rekindled paves the way for an affable farewell.
Intermezzo, F Minor
Rosenbaum employs the fine technique of understatement coupled with just the right varieties of touch, creating an atmosphere of personal mystery and revelation. After much angst and quiet reflection, welcome relief is attained.
Romance, F Major
Both the music and its art are reverentially presented in a manner that might well be termed delicatissimo. The only quibble being the somewhat affected, for my taste, unison lines. The dreamy D major middle section with its steadfast bass deftly—sporting harp-like chords—paves the way back, until there is nothing more to say, do or feel than enjoy the warmth of the sun.
Intermezzo, E-Flat Minor
Op. 118 concludes with a poignant study of despair and hope. Who amongst hasn’t lived that dichotomy? After the opening mist, it falls to double thirds to add the next level of internal pain. A modicum of hope is offered via a much more major, dry, if purposely understated (sotto voce) line before an all-out war of “words” between the two competing components. Rosenbaum makes a convincing case for the supremacy of both before Brahms settles the discussion by yielding to resignation, albeit, this time, double sixths to provide some balm for the wounds, real or imagined.
Intermezzo, B Minor
Gradually finding its way, this essay on leading notes is infused with beguiling, special intimacy.
Intermezzo, E Minor
Hesitato rules; it’s a buffet of texture and tone. The “Lullaby in E” soon throws off its welcome childlike hue in favour of rhapsody. The return and coda slip into a slightly new skin; Brahms, Rosenbaum and listeners bid a reluctant goodbye.
Intermezzo, C Major
Contrasts ‘R’ Us informs this timely sorbet, overflowing with harmonic excursions that delight palates of all sorts.
Rhapsodie, E-Flat Major
Brahms knows his days are numbered and opts to display his incredible gifts of endless moods, harmonic twists and life resolve to make meaning out of sound. An echo of Schumann speaks volumes without ever “stealing” from his beloved friend. Rosenbaum puts everything in its rightful place, with a place for all. The world could use a lot more of this glorious art—new, discovered or recalled. JWR