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8.554768 - Piano Recital: Amir Tebenikhin

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Klavierstücke, Op. 76

Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Three Préludes from Book II

Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953): Sonata No.8 in B flat major, Op. 84

In Vienna, where he finally settled in 1869, Johannes Brahms came to be recognized by some as the true heir to Beethoven, who had died there some forty years or so before. Born in Hamburg, the son of a double-bass player and his seamstress wife, seventeen years her husband's senior, he was taught the violin and cello by his father, with the object of following the same trade. The boy, however, showed greater aptitude for the piano and under generous and inspired teaching reached a high standard of performance and a concurrent command of the techniques of composition. He made his first important concert tour in 1853 with the émigré Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi, visiting Liszt in Weimar, where Brahms failed to make a good impression, and then, with another young violinist from Hungary, Joseph Joachim, the Schumanns in Düsseldorf. Robert Schumann admired his performance of his own compositions enough to publish an article welcoming him as the successor to Beethoven, this shortly before his own final break-down. With the illness and death of Schumann, Brahms did his best to support Clara Schumann, one of the leading pianists of the time, and they continued a close relationship until her death in 1896.

Brahms had given his first concert in Vienna in 1862 and he continued to visit the city in the following years, employed in 1863 as conductor of the Vienna Singakademie, continuing an occupation with which he had been involved in Hamburg and, for three seasons, at the court in Detmold. Eventually he established a routine of work for himself in Vienna, often spending summer months in the country, where he found leisure for composition. Although he was a pianist himself, he only gave intermittent attention to writing solely for the piano. In his earlier years he had won some reputation for his sets of variations, but he wrote no solo piano music for some fifteen years after the Paganini Variations completed in 1863. It was in 1878 that he completed two volumes of piano pieces, published in 1879 as Klavierstücke, Opus 76, and first performed in Leipzig on 4th January 1880. The set consists of four Capriccios and four Intermezzos. The opening Capriccio in F sharp minor offers brief moments of respite in its turbulent and demanding course. It is followed by the Capriccio in B minor, which has the additional direction grazioso after the agitato of the preceding piece, now suggesting something of a dance, slowing into a gentler mood, before the dance resumes. The first Intermezzo, in an expressive A flat major, presents a delicate principal melody in syncopation, before Brahms introduces his favourite cross-rhythms, tellingly and briefly. This is followed by the Intermezzo in B flat major, like the preceding piece marked grazioso. Here the first section is repeated, followed by a melody of limpid beauty above a gentle accompaniment. Next comes an inevitably agitated Capriccio in C sharp minor with implied cross-rhythms. There is a moment of serenity at the heart of the piece, before the initial mood returns, leading to an excited coda. The following Intermezzo in A major makes much of cross-rhythms, continued in a more delicately melancholy central F sharp minor section. The seventh piece is a gently evocative Intermezzo in A minor, a moment of peace before the final Capriccio in C major, a lively piece that exploits the possibilities of counter-rhythms, as figuration seems to contradict the underlying metre. The piece provides a summary of the diverse moods of what has gone before.

The French composer Claude Debussy was reported to have detested the music of Brahms as much as he hated that of Beethoven. Certainly the music he wrote, opening a new world of sound, was very different to the Vienna composers. Born in 1862, he had first entertained ambitions of becoming a concert pianist, but at the Conservatoire turned to composition. Influenced to some extent by the eccentric Erik Satie and still more by the legacy of Chopin, he developed a new musical language, using a delicate palette of sound and nuances, enhanced by his exploration of new harmonic devices. His poetic sensibility is above all evident in the two books of Préludes, the first completed in 1910 and the second in 1913, five years before his death. Each of the 24 Préludes has a title, given only at the end of each piece, as if knowledge of it was of secondary importance to the music itself. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (‘The terrace of the audiences of moonlight’) adapts a newspaper account of the coronation of the English King George V as Emperor of India, endowing the words of the report with a certain oriental mystery. Ondine, the mermaid whose love of a mortal who betrays her brings him disaster, is inspired by an Arthur Rackham illustration to a translation of Friedrich de la Motte Fouquè's fairy-story Undine. Here piano textures suggest the water through which Ondine appears, returning to kill her faithless lover with a kiss. Feux d'artifice (‘Fireworks’) is the last of the Préludes, a display of piano pyrotechnics suggesting a celebration in some city park, allowing, before the end, the distant sound of the Marseillaise to be heard.

The music of Sergey Prokofiev offers a contrast to what has gone before. Born in Ukraine in 1891, he showed precocious ability in music, both as a pianist and as a composer. Private tuition from Glière led him, on the advice of Glazunov, to enter the St Petersburg Conservatoire in 1904, but there he seemed to prefer to learn from his older contemporaries than from the more conventional staff employed there. After the Revolution of 1917 he was given permission to travel abroad and spent time in Paris and in America, before finally returning definitively to Russia in 1936, in time for the Great Purge, the condemnation of Shostakovich and the subsequent sufferings of war. In 1948 his name was coupled with that of Shostakovich and others in official condemnation of what was described as formalism and he died in 1953 on the same day as Stalin, thus failing to benefit from the then relaxation of artistic restrictions that for a time resulted.

Prokofiev completed his Sonata No.8 in 1944, dedicating it to Mira, Maria-Cecilia Abramovna Mendelson, whom he had met in 1939 and with whom he lived after his separation from his wife. She claimed that this sonata and the two immediately preceding it, on which he worked simultaneously during the war years, was influenced by his reading of Romain Rolland's book on Beethoven. A gentle melody is heard at first, further developed before a restless Allegro moderato. The movement ends with a return to the opening Andante dolce, followed by the modified material of the Allegro. The second movement, marked Andante sognando, gently dreaming, is in D flat major, with the now expected shifts of tonality. Lyrical in its general mood, it is followed by a final Vivace of rhythmic contrast, with the re-appearance of the key of D flat major in an emphatic section marked Allegro ben marcato and a final return to B flat in music of considerable tonal and rhythmic variety.

Keith Anderson

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