Interview with Pianist Nada by Ken Meltzer:
A trio of discs from MEII Enterprises concludes Pianist Nada’s survey of the complete solo piano music of Johannes Brahms. I spoke with the artist about her journey of Brahms exploration and discovery, and these superb recordings.
Your three most recent Brahms discs include works that span the beginning of the German composer/pianist’s career to the end of his life. Do these compositions document a progression and changes in Brahms’s approach to composing, and in particular, composing for the keyboard?
In this album of three discs I include all kinds of works from his early young life in Hamburg to some of his middle works when he was in Vienna, and of course the last which he ever wrote for the keyboard, the Chorales that were actually composed for the organ. Talking about organ writing brings me to say that even at the very beginning, Brahms always wrote in a type of contrapuntal style. When you look at some of the themes he uses in his First Sonata for example, they’re already used on different levels, alternating between the right and the left hand and sometimes divided between the two hands, something that he always used throughout his life. His style of writing from the beginning was symphonic, Brahms truly created the symphonic sound for the piano.
In his last opus numbers, the collections of Intermezzi and Capriccios, the spirit of the music is closer to a “moment musical.” They lend themselves to more intimate and poetic expression, yet still through perfectly crafted expressive polyphonic writing. Brahms is here talking about himself in a very personal manner through music.
Are there elements or characteristics that unify the various works as well?
The unifying element of all Brahms works for the piano evidently comes from his strong personal signature right from the early works. Even in the Scherzo for Violin and Piano, or the first Lieder he published, when you listen you know right away this is Johannes Brahms. There is always a direct and honest feeling that comes through his music. There is nothing affected, but more of a search for just a natural way of thinking and speaking music in his own way.
What is so interesting too is that even when he is actually somehow transcribing the work of someone else to transform it into an étude, something he may have started to do when he was still studying under Marxsen, it almost sounds like this is already Johannes Brahms, and not any more like Chopin or Schubert, Bach or Weber, with the exception of the Chaconne, for which he had an infinite admiration.
Brahms was acclaimed both for his prowess as a composer and a pianist. Do you think that his piano works pose specific technical and interpretive challenges not necessarily found in other composers? Given Brahms’s gifts as a pianist, do you perceive his works for the keyboard (or perhaps, specific works) as being especially personal in expression?
Brahms was a formidable pianist. It is obvious from the way he treats the piano and writes for it. It is also so clear from his piano writing that what he offers, and what is always most important with him, is that music comes first and foremost. Nothing is present to show off virtuosity, so deep musicianship is necessary to understand the music, the intention, and the technical challenges. Because his writing is so demanding on many levels—physically, musically, polyphonically, depth of understanding, symphonic dimensions, etc.—it seems to me that it is necessary also to understand the composer’s personality to a certain extent. His work is definitely extremely personal and a deep message that he has left us about himself.
These three discs represent the conclusion of your survey of the complete solo piano music of Brahms. The repertoire was therefore preordained. But I’m curious as to how you chose the works’ order of programming throughout the trio of discs.
Well, I was thinking about all the repertoire I had not yet recorded, so I decided on following my instincts. I saw that a lot of the pieces had similar key signatures, so it became obvious to try to create some order that would be agreeable to the ear and at the same time present a certain diversity. Since I was a radio host for so many years and created my own performing programs as well for my live radio shows, I kind of developed, I believe, a way of keeping the listener with me.
So that’s why it was important to create some sense of connection between the pieces in A and F, for example. Also, I had a feeling about certain works that seemed to create a good continuation. For example, I thought it interesting to put side by side the op. 118, which is such a deeply felt set of Intermezzi and short pieces, followed by four of the Hungarian Dances. That is the personality of Brahms at its opposite, and many are not aware of how rich his persona was—and how extreme sometimes the emotions, on two totally different poles. The same goes for the Chorales, here again an opposite: a vulnerability in the Chorales, followed by an iron will of virtuosity and invention in the Paganini Variations. And then, there was the issue of finding some thread between the shorter pieces. It made sense to have a Bach étude before the Handel Variations, for example, and to couple the Gluck and Weber short pieces together.
Your liner notes for the new Brahms set open:
“Dear Herr Brahms:
As with Bach, you bring music to a complete summary of your time. The difference is in style; you are truly a Romantic. There is an expressive and individual message in your music.”
We know that Brahms greatly revered Bach’s music. You’ve acknowledged the differences in their artistic approaches. Do you find common elements as well?
The most common aspect that I find between Brahms and Bach is actually more intangible. To me, what I see immediately is a similarity in their personalities, characterized by an incredible drive inside themselves throughout their lives. They knew right away they were composers to be. Also I do see a psychic and psychological aspect that helped them to never lose their balance, and made them so strong to survive and to do their best.
It seems to me quite clear that Brahms suffered some emotional difficulties, and yet he always came back to his music and to himself in a very powerful way. We also know that Bach didn’t have a very easy or happy life all the time, despite the fact that he was surrounded by his family. In short I never find any weakness in Bach, nor in Brahms. Even when they show their vulnerability, both of them do it in a very, how should I say, strong way, in a manner to be admired and not to take part in. It’s hard to explain.
On the compositional aspect, the common points would be the wide reach to several different forms, and an interest in counterpoint evident in Brahms that was not a priority for other Romantic composers of his time, and also an organization in their works that displays to me again the strength of their personalities.
There may be more to say from a technical point of view and to go deeply into musical analysis, but I don’t think that would be the subject of this question, although I wouldn’t mind one day giving a lecture on it. It may be in fact a matter of analyzing other composers as well through their music. I find that aspect of music pretty fascinating and revealing at the same time.
Your set includes two great Brahms theme and variations works; the two books of Variations on a Theme of Paganini, and Variations and Fugue on a Theme by G. F. Handel. Do these works differ in approach, and if so how do you as a performer communicate those contrasts in performance?
The Handel Variations were conceived probably with the concert performance in mind. Brahms used this piece to make himself known a few years before the breakthrough of the German Requiem. He was touring throughout Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, and making himself known as a composer and as a great pianist. The Variations on a Theme of Paganini were written for a young virtuoso, Tausig, that Brahms had met in Vienna. This probably is some of the most difficult writing for the piano ever composed. There is nothing gratuitous in it, and as a matter of fact in all of his writing for his instrument. Despite the fact that it is written for a virtuoso, and that it is an attempt at writing difficult challenges for the performer, it remains a tribute to music first and foremost. It is written not to impress the audience but rather to challenge the performer in a series of variations/études that imitate the sounds of the violin (from which the theme is inspired) in technical combinations that are inventive, complex, and out of the ordinary. They were called by Clara Schumann “variations of the devil,” very justifiably, since not only are they devilishly difficult, but also inspired by the devilish personality of Paganini!
Brahms lived and thrived during the Romantic era. But his place in that Romantic movement has been the subject of dispute. For the admirers of Wagner, for example, Brahms was a conservative, even regressive voice in 19th-century music. On the other hand, Arnold Schoenberg suggested that Brahms was in his own way a progressive who helped pave the way for more avant-garde forms of expression. What is your view of Brahms as a Romantic voice?
Oh! Brahms is definitely a Romantic. His music is sooo Romantic. From the beginning to the end it is so full of emotions, passion, tenderness, craziness, everything—you name it—is in his music that is the definition of Romanticism.
“Expressing ourselves through our art,” a particular individuality, is the definition of a Romantic artist. So there is no question that he is a Romantic; but indeed he is also a progressive composer, which is why I say that, as with Bach, he brings music to a complete summary of his time. Any time a composer brings music to a summary, he also comes to a point of opening doors to another time. Or, which other time to come? This is a question Brahms himself often pondered with fear at the end of his life. Because, despite being a Romantic by definition, Brahms also takes everything in his time and everything before his time to an art that is so perfect. This serves as well as a door, opening to the new composers after him.
Schoenberg sees Brahms’s technique of treating the form and the themes in each movement of large-scale works as a fantastic example. Schoenberg’s article on the matter is very precise and leaves no question to the reader. We won’t be going into technical details here, but we know that Schoenberg orchestrated the First Piano Quartet, which Brahms composed when he was not even yet 30 years old. The way the young Brahms has mastery over the material that he uses in this work is amazing already—as he does, to say the least, in every work he ever produced at any point in life.
Also, what I see as a plus is his treatment of the piano writing. He has created this symphonic sound for the piano, a sound of immense proportions and scope for the instrument, which still remains highly at the service of music and not pure virtuosity.
Now that you’ve concluded your intensive study of Brahms, what composers do you look forward to immersing yourself in a similar manner?
I do not have any plans at this point. This Brahms project happened in such a special manner that I didn’t really foresee what it would bring. I had no intention at the beginning to become a specialist in any one composer, but now I am very happy to have immersed myself in his works. I feel I have greatly learned, improved, and matured as an artist, and my outlook on all music and all of life has completely changed.
As a former radio host, I’d love to hear about your series, The Classical Hour. How may our readers access it?
Unfortunately it’s not happening anymore. The Classical Hour stopped a little before the pandemic, and the radio station has also closed its doors. I always dreamed of having a place somewhere on the internet where I could store my former shows and make them accessible to my audience, but at this point it is not there, and I’m not sure if there will be a time to devote and dedicate to organizing and keeping those shows alive someplace.
Are there new recording projects on the horizon?
I would love to record more. My first step right now is to look for another recording company, or eventually even publish recordings on my own. I do have a project that will take me quite a while to have ready, and it is still related to the work of Brahms. But I cannot talk about it too much yet.
BRAHMS 11 Chorale Preludes: Nos. 5, 6, 9, 10, 11 (arr. for piano by Nada). Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Books 1 and 2. Gavotte by Gluck (arr. for piano). Études: No. 2 in C (after Rondo by Weber); No. 4 (after Bach’s Presto). Sarabande in a. Gigue in a. 6 Piano Pieces, op. 118. Hungarian Dances: Nos. 4, 6–10. Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. 7 Fantasies, op. 116. Piano Sonata No. 3 in f • Nada (pn) • MEII ENTERPRISES no catalog number (3 CDs: 216:25)