By Matt Goodrich
February 17, 2015

During the twilight of his career, Johannes Brahms composed several sets of smaller-scale piano works. The Three Intermezzi, Op. 117, date from 1892, five years before his death. The almost-programmatic triptych conveys a wistful, autumnal quality. The first piece, in E-flat major, is prefaced by words from Herder’s translation of the Scottish “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament”: “Sleep softly, my child, sleep softly and well! It breaks my heart to see you weep.” The lullaby sings amid a swaying texture. The second, in B-flat minor, spins a gently flowing melody atop lacelike arpeggios. Brahms’s reference to these works as “lullabies of my sorrows” likely refers to the third, a piece of poignant resignation in C-sharp minor.

The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, composed thirty years previously, represents a zenith in Brahms’s earlier larger-scale piano compositions. The work unfolds with imagination and grandeur equal to Bach’s Goldberg and Beethoven’s Diabelli variation masterpieces. From an elegant, unpretentious theme—the Air of Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 1 (1733)—Brahms fashioned twenty-five diverse variations, deploying traditional as well as novel techniques to create a feeling of constant organic growth. The capstone, magisterial fugue builds a contrapuntal cathedral out of material derived from the theme. The work was premiered by Clara Schumann in December 1861 in Brahms’s native Hamburg. Subsequently, the composer selected it for his December 1862 Vienna debut as pianist and composer.

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The next two works are homages to Franz Schubert and the Viennese waltz. From the late eighteenth century, this charming, whirling dance with its characteristic triple meter captivated Europe. Waltz mania intensified throughout the nineteenth century, and composers were delighted to produce copious music for dancing. Schubert was a prolific contributor, showcasing his gifts for irresistibly lilting rhythms, singing melodies, and imaginative harmonic subtleties. His waltzes in turn inspired later generations of composers.

It seems apt that Maurice Ravel, with his dandified, polished manners and dress along with a predilection for antiques and mechanical toys, would be drawn to the Viennese waltz. Ravel was unusually open about his inspiration for Valses nobles et sentimentales: “The title sufficiently indicates my intention on writing a set of Schubertian waltzes.” The opening waltz is prefaced with a Henri de Régnier quotation: “the delicious and always novel pleasure of a useless occupation.” Its famous opening bars are startlingly sharp in dissonance, heralding a new style that Ravel termed “distinctly clearer writing.” Six more waltzes follow, incorporating moments from torpor to brilliance, crafted through the prism of Ravel’s distinctive dissonance, sophisticated rhythm, and elegant sensuality. A nostalgic epilogue concludes the set, recalling fleeting allusions to previous themes. The work was premiered in Paris by Louis Albert in May 1911 in an unusual Société Musicale Indépendante concert, at which the pieces on the program were listed anonymously and audience members asked to guess the composers. Ravel’s Valses were attributed to Kodály, Satie, Chopin, and Gounod, among others (including Ravel).

Franz Liszt championed Schubert’s music throughout his career, regularly performing the piano works and transcriptions of songs for solo piano. In 1852, he published in Vienna and Paris nine ineffably charming Soirées de Vienne (Valses Caprices d’après Schubert). From three dozen Schubert waltzes, Liszt fashioned mosaic-like paraphrases, linking the melodies, enriching the harmonies, adding occasional interludes and cadenzas, and adorning all with scintillating pianism, while honoring the musical qualities and expression of Schubert’s originals. No. 5, in G-flat major, is perhaps the most tunefully delightful of the pieces; No. 6, in A minor, is the most famous.

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Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, inspired by the extraordinary improvisations and dramatic emotional contrasts of the gypsy music he recalled from his native land, are colorful showcases exploiting every facet of virtuosic pianism. The rhapsodies are relatively free in structure, usually constructed in a mercurial series of sections contrasting deliberate with vivacious themes. The material is varied through fantastic fountains of sounds that build in texture, momentum, and expression. The original solo piano version of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 was published in 1851. The work consists of two broad sections: the dramatic, stately lassu of a Hungarian folk dance; followed by the friska, its brisker counterpart.

This rhapsody has been heard in myriad arrangements and immortalized by dozens of appearances in popular culture, most famously performed by Bugs Bunny in “Rhapsody Rabbit” (1946) and Tom and Jerry in “The Cat Concerto” (1947).

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Simon Trpčeski
Sunday, March 1, 2015
LaSells Stewart Center, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon