Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Six Piano Pieces, Opus 118
1 Intermezzo in A minor      4 Intermezzo in F minor
2 Intermezzo in A      5 Romanze in F
3 Ballade in G minor      6 Intermezzo in E flat minor
With his victories long since won, his conquest of the biggest musical forms achieved beyond all question, Brahms returned in his last years to the medium of the short piano piece. In one sense it was a relaxation. He no longer had to satisfy other peopleís expectations besides his own severely self-critical demands. There were no more vast musical structures to be shaped. Instead he could allow his lyrical impulses a freer rein and recollect emotion in comparative tranquillity. But it would be a mistake to assume that in turning again, four years after his last orchestral work, to piano solos Brahms was contenting himself with trifles; his use of the title Intermezzo did not necessarily imply light music. His mastery was applied no less to these concentrated miniatures than it had been to his bigger works. It can be said that here a new Brahms is revealed, or perhaps more of the old one. All his life he maintained a certain reserve towards all but his closest friends, but he was a man who hid a romantic heart beneath a gruff exterior, and in some of the late piano pieces he showed a greater readiness to disclose it.
The Op.118 set, published in 1893, opens with a brief Intermezzo that sets a broad, descending theme against widely-spread arpeggios emphasising Brahmsís love of thirds and sixths. It appears to begin in F major and only settles definitely into A minor just before the end. The following Intermezzo in A is a reflective piece founded on its opening phrase. Canons and other contrapuntal devices are employed so unassumingly that they can easily pass unnoticed. After a middle section in F sharp minor the reprise of the opening part is varied. The Ballade in G minor (Allegro energico) makes a vigorous contrast with its bold rhythmic theme and chordal accompaniment. This, too, is in ternary form, the more easy-going central episode being in remote B major.
Canonic writing dominates the fourth piece, which has a slightly agitated first section in
F minor, a gentler second one in A flat and a stormy free reprise of the first. It ends with an
F major pause, preparing for the Romanze in that key. Here a gentle Andante melody frames a rippling Allegretto grazioso in D interspersed with G sharp trills.
The concluding Intermezzo in E flat minor is dramatic and tragic. It begins sotto voce with a bleak theme fashioned from only three notes Ė E flat, F and G flat. Harp-like figuration in the left hand supports it, and the music takes on a Debussy-like flavour. The following
G flat theme is cast in Brahmsís more familiar heroic mould, but after a big climax it collapses, and the closing bars are as forlorn and enigmatic as the first.
© Eric Mason