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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Last Piano Pieces
Three Intermezzi, Op.117 (1892) [18:03]
Six Piano Pieces, Op.118 (1893) [28:06]
Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119 (1893) [19:01]
Victor Rosenbaum (piano)
rec. January 2017 and October 2018, Jordan Hall, Boston, USA
BRIDGE 9545 [65:17]

This is a very impressive disc, the performances on it being full of insight and authority, the whole imbued with an air of mature perception and alert sensitivity. Victor Rosenbaum’s technique is sure, his readings personal without being eccentric. The idea of devoting a disc exclusively to Brahms’ late works for piano is an intelligent one, entirely justified by the results. It helps that the pianist himself provides some excellent booklet notes, and the Steinway D he plays sounds fine in the recorded sound.

Although Victorian scholars and critics tackled the questions of how and why Shakespeare’s last plays were different from the rest of his work and later, around a hundred years ago, the German art historian Albert Brinckmann developed the concept of ‘Altersstil’ (Old-age style) to describe the supposed common features in the late or last works of various artists, interest in such questions increased greatly after the publication, in 1937, of Adorno’s brief essay ‘Spätstil Beethoven’ (The Late Style of Beethoven). There have been, and continue to be, many contributions to the discussion. In recent years it was given fresh momentum by the posthumous publication (in 2006) of Edward Said’s book On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. Precisely what is (or should be) meant by the term ‘late style’ continues to be debated hotly (there is a useful survey of some of the meanings attached to the term in Joseph N. Straus’ article ‘Disability and “Late Style” in Music’, The Journal of Musicology, 25:1, 2008, pp.3-45). Even though there is no settled agreement, it is very obvious that there is a widespread critical interest in the idea that works of art (in the visual arts, literature and music) produced late in an artist’s life are likely to have distinctive qualities.

The distinguished American pianist Victor Rosenbaum (born in 1941) clearly has a particular interest in ‘late’ works (even if he would surely not wish to become embroiled in the critical and theoretical discussions around the idea of ‘late style’). The evidence is there in the CDs he has recorded; which include Schubert: Music from His Last Year (Fleur de Son FDS 58032); and, from Bridge, a disc called simply Franz Schubert (Bridge 9070). On it Rosenbaum plays the Piano Sonata in A major D.959 and Moments Musicaux D. 780. The Piano Sonata was probably completed in September 1828 and the six Moments Musicaux were largely written in 1827 and 1828. So, this too, is a programme of music written shortly before the composer’s death (Schubert died on November 19th 1828), even if it is not ‘advertised’ as such. Another record from Bridge (Bridge 9159) has the title A Beethoven Trilogy: The Last 3 Sonatas. Here, now, is a new disc from Rosenbaum, Brahms: The Last Piano Pieces.

It is worthwhile to consider what Rosenbaum himself has to say about some of these discs and the question of ‘lateness’. In his booklet notes for Franz Schubert, Rosenbaum writes thus: “The compositions on this disc are ‘late’ works, and although it is ironic to speak of ‘late’ works by one who died at the age of 31, a close examination of the music and an attentive listening will confirm that they bear all the earmarks that this designation suggests: a complete and utter mastery of compositional processes, the deep and affecting psychological and philosophical understanding that one associates with maturity and old age, and the kaleidoscope of emotions – defiance, nostalgia, joy, resignation – that precede death.” In his words accompanying A Beethoven Trilogy Rosembaum observes “Beethoven wrote these works between 1820 and 1822 […] While it is not known whether he knew at the time that these would be his last sonatas (he did go on to write more piano music: two sets of Bagatelles and the Diabelli Variations) the music does convey a sense […] of being what Lewis Lockwood aptly describes as ‘a self consciously final statement’”. Rosenbaum also affirms that these sonatas, while being “poignantly retrospective and internal, […] are, at the same time, forward looking […] exploring vast new territories of the imagination and writing for the instrument in startling ways that foreshadow virtually all piano music to come”. In his booklet notes to this new release, Rosenbaum is content to observe that “many of these pieces can easily be heard as the reflections of a man in the twilight of his life” and to suggest that these last piano works “serve as deeply personal, often retrospective statements”.

The relevance of ideas about ‘late style’ in the consideration of Brahms’ work was the subject of a major book on the composer published some 14 years ago, Margaret Notley’s Lateness and Brahms: Music and Culture in the Twilight of Viennese Liberalism, O.U.P., 2007. I read this book, with great interest, some 7 or 8 years ago, but currently have no access to a copy, since all the academic libraries I might visit remain closed due to the Covid pandemic. I am, however, able to refer to some notes I made when reading Notley’s book. As the subtitle of her book suggests, she places much emphasis on Brahms’ recognition of the changing circumstances in his time and place as a factor in the way his music changed: “the rise of modernism in the arts around 1890, like the sociopolitical crisis that peaked more or less simultaneously must have tended to give Brahms the appearance of someone who had outlived his time” (Notley, p.64). A sub heading in the long chapter (Chapter 2 -‘Brahms and the Problem of Late Style’) from which that quotation is taken, reads (p.70): “BRAHMS IN A WANING CULTURE AND THE TOPOS OF AN AUTUMNAL STYLE”. After the completion of his G Major String Quartet in 1890, there followed “a short interlude in which he [Brahms] thought his creative life over” (Notley, p.37). As Brahms felt more and more at odds with the times, so “the composer’s feelings of isolation increased [and] the ‘lateness’ of his work became more pronounced.” (ibid., p.39). But alongside the sociopolitical developments there were also more personal factors at work in creating Brahms’ sense of ‘belatedness’. In 1893, Brahms turned sixty, a time at which, inevitably, a number of one’s friends and contemporaries die; this was certainly Brahms’ experience. In January 1892, Brahms heard of the death of Elizabeth von Herzogenburg (some 12 years younger than Brahms) a great friend, along with her husband, and a woman whose judgements on his work Brahms respected; in his brief biography Brahms (1933, revised ed. 1938) – of which I am rather fond – William Murdoch writes (p.157), “after the death of Elizabeth, he seems to have found solace in sitting and improvising at the beloved instrument of his youth.” [i.e. the piano]. Later in the same year Brahms’ sister Elise (two years older than the composer) also died. Around this time, Brahms’ remaining friends began to grow concerned about his health. He was probably already ill with what was diagnosed as liver cancer in 1896. He was to die in the April of 1897.

Attempts to identify features which characterise ‘late style’ works are very varied – and often mutually contradictory. One characteristic, however, that many such attempts refer to is that ‘late’ works are frequently retrospective in one or more sense – in such works the artist often looks back to works s(h)e produced earlier and ‘re-writes’ them – developing and deepening their significance. The most perfect example of this I know is to be found, if I may use a literary example, in Shakespeare. One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors, (written c. 1593-4) is built on a plot which, reduced to basics, begins with a shipwreck which separates the members of a family and ends with their re-unification. The very same basic plot underlies Twelfth Night written, c.1599-1601, in the middle years of Shakespeare’s career as a dramatist. So, when, near the end of that career Shakespeare wrote The Tempest (late 1610/early 1611) in the use of a plot which begins with a shipwreck which separates a family and ends with their being brought back together, he was re-using a favourite narrative pattern. But he now discovers new depths and range in it. The Comedy of Errors is essentially a farce of mistaken identities and confusion, with little emotional depth. Twelfth Night, similarly full of mistaken identities and confusions, is also a serious exploration of love and lovesickness. The late play, The Tempest, while it has much in common with the two earlier works, is a philosophical play, about the nature of good and evil, about what it is to be human and the use and abuse of power, about redemption, forgiveness and self-knowledge, colonialism and gender roles, about, indeed, the very nature of theatre. Shakespeare’s ‘late’ play is both retrospective, in that it looks back to and re-employs forms and ideas he had used previously, and simultaneously forward-looking, opening up new ideas and forms. If we turn to Brahms with this example in mind, one can see a pattern which is not altogether dissimilar. Brahms, too, looks back to his beginnings as the means to do something new. His career as a composer had begun with works for the piano; in 1852 and 1853 (i.e. when he 19/20) he wrote his three piano sonatas. In the following year he composed his Four Ballades. He then wrote relatively little for solo piano, save for some sets of variations in 1856 and 1862-3. Thereafter, until the end of the 1870s he wrote little for the instrument, ending this ‘silence’ with the Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76 (1878) and the Two Rhapsodies, Op.79 (1879). No more works for piano emerged until early in the 1890s – very much the period of ‘late’ Brahms, when he must have been conscious both of the social and cultural changes in Vienna and, with the death of several friends and his own illness, of the likely approach of his own death. By now he seems to have come to the conclusion that, after Beethoven, the piano sonata was, at least temporarily, an exhausted form, so in returning to the instrument for which he had composed in his youth, he turned to the writing of sets of short pieces, first Fantasien, Op.116 (1892) and then three sets, Op. 117-119, recorded here by Victor Rosenbaum. These late pieces (or ‘last pieces’ as Rosenbaum prefers to call them) have (like The Tempest), something retrospective about them, but Brahms was not simply repeating himself, any more than Shakespeare had been. There was a new gravity, a new intensity of introspection, in the new pieces. Alfred Einstein (Music of the Romantic Age, 1947, p.225) describes these works succinctly: “These compositions are intimate confessions, often difficult but never virtuoso, retrospective, folk-song like, excited, resigned. It is not simply a matter of personal confession but also of historical intuition. Piano sonatas were still being born, but the Romantic epoch of great brilliance was over. That was what these short pieces, which are not at all miniatures, say with finality”. But, like Shakespeare writing The Tempest, Brahms writing these last pieces for piano was also breaking new ground, as when, for example, in the Intermezzo in B minor, the first piece in Op. 119, the writing “pushes harmonic boundaries, with its poly-triadic seventh and ninth (and even eleventh) chords sounding almost impressionistic.” (Rosenbaum). When Brahms sent a manuscript of this intermezzo to Clara Schumann – who was to die in May of 1896 – he significantly wrote on it “this work is crawling with dissonance” and warned her that she might well not like it.

Victor Rosenbaum’s account of these pieces seems to me impeccable. He understands the way in which some of them are bound up with the fascinations Brahms had with particular questions of technique (whether of composition or performance), such as the way he uses the circle of fifths in the B minor intermezzo discussed above, or the way in which the melody of the Intermezzo in C (also from Op. 119) is played with the thumb of the right hand. But above all he plays these three sets with perfect empathy and great emotional intelligence.

Rosenbaum is equally convincing in the emotionally intense and somewhat stormy Intermezzo in A minor which opens Opus 118 and in the contrasting tenderness of the second piece in the same set, the Intermezzo in A Major, where the middle section in F-sharp minor is taken more slowly than it sometimes is and the sense of inner reflection is beautifully articulated by this choice. Indeed, his astute judgement of tempo is one reason why his interpretations work so well. So, for example, in playing the Intermezzo in C major (Op.119.3) Rosenbaum does full justice to the three words – grazioso, giocoso, leggiero – Brahms places at the top of the score; in part he does so by subtle variations in tempo and a refusal to settle too firmly into a single regular tempo. Rosenbaum responds wholeheartedly to the vitality of the G minor Ballade (Op.118.3) and also to the very different Romanze in F major (Op.118.5) where, alert to both the oblique hints of narrative and to the slowly blooming tenderness of the piece, he traces a very moving arc of emotions without the slightest hint of sentimentality.

I could itemize the rest of the thirteen ‘last piano pieces’ on this disc without having serious reason to find fault with any of them. The whole disc is magisterial; a mature pianist bringing deep thought and empathy to a series of mature pieces which, even though relatively short, stand revealed, as clearly has I have ever heard, as masterpieces. This will be the disc I turn to when I next want to hear any or all of these remarkable pieces. Victor Rosenbaum’s recording of Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, A Beethoven Trilogy, was chosen by the American Record Guide as one of its top ten classical recordings of 2016. This disc of Brahms’ Last Piano Works deserves to win honours too.

Glyn Pursglove

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