About this Recording
8.550354 - BRAHMS, J.: Intermezzi, Op. 117 / Piano Pieces, Opp. 118-119 (Biret)

Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Three Intermezzi, Op.117
Piano Pieces, Op.118
Piano Pieces, Op.119

Johannes Brahms was born on 7th May 1833 in the Gängeviertel district of Hamburg, the son of Johann Jakob Brahms, a double-bass player, and his wife, a seamstress seventeen years his senior. As was natural, he was at first taught music by his father, the violin and cello, with the intention that the boy should follow his father's trade, but his obvious interest in the piano led to lessons on the instrument from an inspiring teacher and his first modest appearance on the concert platform at the age of ten. From this time onwards he became a pupil of Eduard Marxsen, who gave him a firm grounding in classical technique, while he earned money for his family by playing the piano in establishments of doubtful reputation in the St. Pauli district of the port, frequented largely by sailors and others in search of amusement. By the age of fifteen he had given his first solo concert as a pianist.

In 1853 Brahms embarked on a concert tour with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi, during the course of which he visited Liszt in Weimar, to no effect, and struck up a friendship with the violinist Joseph Joachim, through whose agency he met the Schumanns then established in Düsseldorf. The connection was an important one. Schumann was impressed enough by the music Brahms played him to hail him as the long-awaited successor to Beethoven, and his subsequent break-down in February 1854 and ensuing insanity brought Brahms back to Düsseldorf to help his wife Clara Schumann and her young family. The relationship with Clara Schumann, one of the most distinguished pianists of the time, lasted until her death in 1896.

Further concert activity and his association with Joachim and Clara Schumann allowed Brahms to meet many of the most famous musicians of the day. In 1857 he took a temporary position at the court of Detmold as a conductor and piano teacher, duties that he briefly resumed again in the following two years, continuing all the time his activity as a composer and spending much of his time in Hamburg, where his ambitions were always to centre.

Brahms first visited Vienna in 1862, giving concerts there and meeting during the course of the winter the critic Eduard Hanslick, who was to prove a doughty champion. The following year brought appointment as conductor of the Vienna Singakademie for the season and in 1864 he again spent the winter in the city, a pattern repeated in the following years until he finally took up permanent residence there in 1869. For the rest of his life he remained a citizen of Vienna, travelling often enough to visit friends or to give concerts, and generally spending the summer months in the country, where he might concentrate on composition without undue disturbance. He came in some ways to occupy a position similar to Beethoven in the musical life of the city, his notorious rudeness generally tolerated and his bachelor habits indulged by an admiring circle of friends. He died in Vienna in 1897.

In the music of the second half of the nineteenth century Brahms came to occupy a position in direct antithesis to Wagner. The latter had seen in Beethoven's great Choral Symphony the last word in symphonic music. The music of the future lay, he claimed, in the new form of music-drama of which he was the sole proponent. His father-in-law Liszt similarly found the way forward in the symphonic poem, an alloy formed from the musical and extra-musical. Brahms, largely through the advocacy of Hanslick, found himself the champion of pure or abstract music combined neither with drama nor any other medium. The distinction was in some ways an artificial one. Nevertheless Brahms, whose background, like Beethoven's, was less literary than that of Wagner or of Liszt, did significantly extend the range of the symphony and was hailed by many contemporaries as the successor to Beethoven, a future Schumann had prophesied for him 23 years before the first symphony was written.

The last compositions Brahms wrote for piano were those published as Opus 117, 118 and 119, principally the work of 1892, when he apparently wrote a number of other piano pieces that were never published. The first group, Opus 117, consists of three Intermezzi. The first, in the key of E flat, carries as a sub-title a quotation from Herder's translation of a Scottish folk-song:

Schlaf sanft, mein Kind, schlaf sanft und schön!
Mich dauert 's sehr, dich weinen sehn.

Its beautiful melody, the basis of the whole piece, is concealed in an inner part. The second Intermezzo, in B flat minor, makes expressive use of an arpeggiated texture and the group ends with a C sharp minor Intermezzo where the initial theme is presented in stark and recurrent octaves.

Opus 118 bears the simpler title Klavierstücke and includes four Intermezzi, a Ballade and a Romanze. The opening Intermezzo in A minor is marked Allegro non assai, ma molto appassionato, a mood expressed in a texture of great clarity. The second Intermezzo, in A major, provides a relaxation of mood into a tender valedictory melancholy. The G minor Ballade, with a B major central section, is vigorous in its principal theme but tranquil enough in its conclusion. There follows an F minor Intermezzo, marked Allegretto un poco agitato, an instruction that epitomises the feeling of the music, which leads to the F major Romanze, with its lilting D major central section. The sixth piece is an E flat minor Intermezzo making greater technical demands in a work where the chief demands are musical.

Opus 119 contains three Intermezzi and one Rhapsody. It opens with a B minor Intermezzo that Clara Schumann found sadly sweet, an apt description. The second Intermezzo, in E minor, is less tranquil in its outer sections, which enclose a central section that breathes the feeling of the summer countryside. The third Intermezzo, in C major, is marked Grazioso e giocoso, and with happy grace allows its initial melody to emerge in an inner part. Opus 119 ends with an E flat major Rhapsody, the last of "your and my little pieces", as Brahms called them in a letter to Clara Schumann, whose pupil Ilona Eibenschütz gave their first public performance in London in 1894. The Rhapsody is forthright in its opening but contains elements of melancholy beauty at its heart and brings to an end in a firmly minor key the composer's compositions for the piano.

Idil Biret
Born in Ankara, Idil Biret began piano lessons at the age of three. She displayed an outstanding gift for music and graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with three first prizes when she was fifteen. She studied piano with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, and composition with Nadia Boulanger.

Since the age of sixteen Idil Biret has performed in concerts around the world playing with major orchestras under the direction of conductors such as Monteux, Boult, Kempe, Sargent, de Burgos, Pritchard, Groves and Mackerras. She has participated in the festivals of Montreal, Persepolis, Royan, La Rochelle, Athens. Berlin. Gstaad and Istanbul. She was also invited to perform at the 85th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Backhaus and at the 90th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Kempff.

Idil Biret received the Lily Boulanger Memorial Fund award (1954/1964), the Harriet Cohen/Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal ( 1959) and the Polish Artistic Merit Award (1974) and was named Chevalier de I'Ordre du Mérite in 1976.

Idil Biret is recording for Naxos the complete Chopin cycle as well as all the piano solo works of Brahms and works by Rachmaninov.

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