Classical Music

Brahms, First of the Moderns

Brahms in 1853

For the second concert of his fifth season, Sergey Schepkin, founder and director of the Glissando Boston concert series, immersed us in what is perhaps Brahms’s most uninhibitedly “Absolute music,” namely piano works for one and two pianos. In Paul Rudolph’s soaring modernist sanctuary of First Church in Boston, and along with a sizeable audience despite Friday evening’s chilly rain, we rediscovered the glorious rhapsodic beauty and innovative percussive power of Brahms’s piano music.

Schepkin started with the sublime and sublimely pared-down Three Intermezzi, Op. 117, written late in Brahms’s life, in 1892. As is his hallmark, Schepkin had developed a penetrating understanding of the three challenging and deeply enigmatic pieces before delivering his own subtle and intelligent interpretation. He performed them with great simplicity, allowing Brahms’s own concentrated and mature mastery of form to speak for itself freely – or, rather, to sing with solemn grace for itself with a thousand nuances of introspection, grief, yearning, regret and gratitude. In the first, Andante moderato in E-flat major, Schepkin did two notable things. He took full advantage of the Scottish lullaby reference to tinge the piece with a pleasing innocent wildness, and he unfolded the melodic line into a loving cradle containing deeper and more tumultuous emotions, soothing them without denying them.

In the second Intermezzo, Andante non troppo e con molto espressione in B-flat minor, Schepkin gave us a boldly impressionist reading. He conveyed the full extent to which “the lullaby of all of my griefs” (as Brahms himself said) served as an Incantation to Beauty. The rippling moonlit atmosphere created by the falling-arpeggio figure seemed to open up ever-new horizons of aesthetic discovery, pointing in the direction of Debussy. Brahms’s commitment to the intricate inner structures of music’s own adamantine languages sustains an inexhaustible transcendence. A similar delicacy emanated from the last Intermezzo, Andante con moto in C-sharp minor, where Schepkin introduced a more fatalistic color through clear phrasing that eschewed all need for exaggerated inflection. Truth speaks to us directly. We cannot refuse it or elude it.

After revealing the full maturity of Brahms’s art to us in the Three Intermezzi, Schepkin returned to its early sources with the Sonata No. 1 in C Major, Op. 1, composed in 1853 when Brahms was a handsome pink-cheeked youth of 20, nicely combining Beethovenian heroism with Schubertian melodiousness. Schepkin revealed an impetuous young composer who yearned to achieve freedom through disciplining a richly volatile agency, driven in multiple directions by a distinctively personal awareness of rhythmic possibilities. Schepkin gave the first movement both a scattered and convulsive feeling, reminiscent of Shelley’s Wild West Wind in its unabashedly Romantic, Sturm und Dang momentum. He interpreted the second movement Andante to be deeply suspenseful, intoxicating and provocative, before plunging into the third movement almost without pause, attaca, giving it a frankly calamitous atmosphere with spirited and rambunctious chords worthy of Schoenberg. As a result, the final movement Allegro con fuoco emerged as a veritable catharsis, cleansing, liberating — utterly youthful, full of promise, magnificently immature and resolute.

In works for two pianos, Erin Lindsey and her brother Ian Lindsey further explored the many surprising features of Brahms’s complex but organic and progressive artistry that Schepkin had helped us rediscover with fresh awareness. The brother-sister duo first played a selection of Waltzes, Op. 39 (1865), showcasing Brahms’s middle period. They nicely emphasized the composer’s rhythmic innovations, especially in Waltz No. 4 in E Minor, which they imbued with a nice rumbling character, and in Waltz No. 11 in B Minor, to which they gave a scherzo-like, carnival feel. In the famous Waltz 15 in A major, they emphasized the way Brahms uses rhythmic inventiveness to give fresh power and meaning to variations.

The Lindseys ended the concert with a titanic performance of the Sonata for Two Pianos in F Minor, Op. 34b. Throughout, they emphasized the percussive effects obtained by four hands over and beyond the complex back and forth imitations, divergence and convergence, communion, and rivalry. Their wonderfully ‘tough,” energetic, thrilling, riveting, cacophonous traversal at times felt even brutalist in its emphasis on Brahms’s trailblazing position as the “first of the moderns.” Yet the Andante un poco Adagio inspired meltingly beautiful sonorities, progressively more tender and interlaced, and at times evocative of a dirge. The strikingly bold modernism with which they took the introduction to the final movement, Poco sostenuto, allowed fragments of it to return with the same bold, fresh aesthetic, interrupting the massive landscape of forward momentum.

We had all been massaged mind and soul, heart and body, from limb to limb, violently cleansed from any February slump. But oh the three valedictory Intermezzi! In a strange and paradoxical way, their immense and delicate maturity shone all the more brightly after our immersion in Brahms’s journey of fidelity and strife. 

On Friday March 17th, Glissando will offer more Brahms, this time Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 11, with local favorites Gary Gorczyca (clarinet) and Rafael Popper-Kaiser (cello) joining Schepkin on the piano. Stay tuned!

Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.

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