was a most accomplished pianist and supported his family financially
from an early age playing the piano in dockside bordellos in
the German port of Hamburg. Brahms’ output for the piano spanned
his entire life and when he wasn’t writing original piano compositions
he frequently made piano reductions of his orchestral, choral
and chamber works to allow them greater accessibility to a wider
audience. For example he prepared a piano reduction of his mighty
German Requiem. After he had composed his Eight Pieces
for piano, Op. 76 between 1871 and 1878 and the Two Rhapsodies
for piano, Op. 79 in 1879, he again published some
sets of shorter piano pieces. This was only a few years before
his death. The total of twenty piano pieces contained in his
Opp. 116-119 at the same time represent his last will and testament
as a piano composer. Brahms was not to write any for works for
According to the Katrin Eich, the author of the booklet
notes, the listener encounters in these pieces a considerable
and multifaceted wealth of expressive contents and compositional
techniques. In these pieces, which are often divided into three
parts, the spectrum ranges from fragile intimacy to vehement
expressivity. Eich explains that, “wide-grip chord chains
often alternate with fine linear texture, and harmonic and rhythmic-metrical
complications combine with folk-song elements styled with fine
artistry.” In addition the pieces stand out for their wealth
of dissonances that can be said to point to the future.
Elisabeth Leonskaja plays this recital on a Steinway D, 1901
piano at the Furstliche Reitbahn in Bad Arolsen; a favourite
recording venue of the MDG sound engineers.
Leonskaja was born in Tbilisi, in Georgia and studied at the
Moscow Conservatory with Jacob Milstein before emigrating from
the Soviet Union to settle in Vienna. Leonskaja has performed
duets with Sviatoslav Richter which experience had a profound
effect on her artistic development. However, it was her sensational
debut at the 1979 Salzburg Festival that rapidly brought her
name to the attention of Western audiences.
These piano pieces, many of them lasting only a couple
of minutes, give particular pleasure to the listener. Leonskaja responds impressively to the challenge of
the “strangeness blended with the beautiful” - as one
commentator once defined Romanticism. The talented Leonskaja
captures the unpredictability of Brahms’s swiftly changing moods
and at the same time she imparts a sense of completeness to
the sequence as a whole. This is quality playing from Leonskaja
that is exemplary in commitment, high in expression with a rapt
I am highly impressed by Leonskaja’s playing, my recommendations
in these scores are the recordings from Dmitri Alexeev on EMI
Double Forte 5 695521-2 and from Julius Katchen, as part of
a six CD set, on Decca 455 247-6.
played and checked this SACD using several of my standard CD
players and experienced some difficulties with the rather soupy
sound quality. A friend summed up the problem by stating that
it felt as if the microphone had been positioned on the outside
wall of the studio. Thankfully my ears soon became used to the
sonics and allowed me to concentrate on the interpretations.
The booklet notes by Katrin
Eich and translated into English are
interesting, highly informative; if occasionally rather technical.
playing from Elisabeth Leonskaja.