Fanfare Review: Nada Meets Johannes Brahms by Jerry Dubins

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BRAHMS Sarabande No. 2 in b, WoO 5/2. Gigue No. 2 in b, WoO 4/2. 4 Ballades, op. 10. 4 Piano Pieces, op. 119. Scherzo in e, op. 4 • Nada • MEII 70712922402
(62:19)

They say you learn something new every day. Today, on Nada’s new album, I heard two pieces by Brahms I’m relatively certain I’d never heard before, a Sarabande and Gigue, both in B Minor, that the composer jotted down in 1854-55 at the age of 21. I’d come across references to them before, so I knew of their existence, but, I can’t recall previously encountering them on disc. Though few in numbers, recordings of these pieces do exist, most recently by Barry Douglas in his survey of the composer’s complete works for solo piano.

In an article by Robert Pascall, titled “Unknown Gavottes by Brahms,” in Volume 57, No. 4, of Music & Letters, the author writes: “In June 1854 Brahms sent Joachim a number of small piano works, and Joachim, in his extended reply of 27 June of that year remarked: ‘I like the Sarabande the least; its trio has for me a slight hint of monotonous commonplace.’ Clara Schumann noted in her diary on 31 March 1855: ‘Johannes is always playing me marvelous things so beautifully. He has composed several Sarabandes, Gavottes, and Gigue of his own which delight me’.”

A paragraph or two later, Pascall tells us that “hitherto, two Sarabandes, in A Minor and B Minor, and two Gigues by Brahms have been known, but no original Gavottes. The Photogrammarchiv of the Austrian National Library in Vienna, however, preserves photographic copies of a Sarabande and two Gavottes in the composer’s hand.” Sure enough, the Gavottes are now listed in the appendix to Brahms’s complete works as WoO 3/1 and WoO 3/2, in A Major and A Minor, respectively. And as noted above, all of these “practice” pieces have been recorded before, though infrequently.

Nada begins her Brahms recital with two of these early “Bach imitations,” and bookends them with an even earlier piece, the much better-known Scherzo in E Minor, which, despite its opus number 4, was composed in 1851, making it one of the earliest piano pieces, if not the earliest, that Brahms wrote. It wasn’t published, however, until 1854, a year after the piano sonatas were composed.

In between these two early bookends, Nada gives us the Ballades, op. 10, and the Four Piano Pieces, op. 119, both of which are well served on record.

Nada, who chooses to go by her first name only, is slowly but steadily essaying Brahms’s complete piano works for MEII, a label distributed by Phoenix Classical. Paul Orgel and I both reviewed her first Brahms album in 40:2, and then, in 41:2, Orgel alone reviewed the pianist’s second installment in the cycle.

Nada’s approach to the programming of her discs has been unusual, to say the least, not only because each volume contains a mix of Brahms’s piano pieces of differing categories and from different periods in the composer’s life, but also because she is including the Chorale Preludes, originally composed for organ, and some of Brahms’s piano arrangements of works by other composers, so far Bach and Schubert. Whether Nada’s Brahms survey will eventually encompass miscellany, such as the cadenzas he composed to concertos by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven remains to be seen.

With this, her third volume in the series, with the exception of the Sarabande and Gigue, we’re in more familiar territory when it comes to the rest of the program.

The Ballads, dating from 1854, are still very early works, and much of a piece with the three coeval sonatas, in terms of their bold and bravura keyboard writing. But in musical content, the Ballades, which are essentially semi-programmatic character pieces or short tone poems, are highly uncharacteristic of Brahms. The subtext on which they’re based, the traditional Scottish poem/murder ballad, Edward, strikes me as subject matter that would appeal more to Dvořák. A son returns on his steed, from where we don’t know, his sword dripping with blood. At first he evades his mother’s questions, but then confesses to killing his father, why, we’re not told. Mommy doesn’t seem upset. She just wants to know what her son plans to do for penance. He announces he will leave and never return. So, what’s in that for her? “A curse from Hell,” he replies. Why? What did she do?

As I said, this is not really the sort of literary source one expects would appeal to Brahms. Dvořák had more of a taste for tales of madness, murder, and mayhem. Brahms, on the other hand, may not have been very good at depicting scenes of horror like this—I doubt that anyone would envision the blood-dripping, baleful narrative Brahms’s Ballads purport to evoke—but what he was very good at was writing seriously sonorous music for the piano that explores the textural and tonal characteristic of the instrument.

Take, for example, the “hole-in-the-middle” effect, of which bars 19 through 22 in the Second Ballade are but one instance. The chords in the right hand have notes that rise progressively higher above the treble staff, while the left hand continues to play an ostinato figure it has had since the beginning of the piece, which descends to below the bass staff. The “emptiness” between the two staves creates a rather hollow, haunting sound.

Nada “tone-paints” Brahms’s four Ballades in a manner that makes manifest the music’s ever-changing, kaleidoscopic textures, revealing facets of the notes that shimmer and sheen like the facets of diamonds as the light hits them from different angles. Beautifully done, indeed.

The Four Piano Pieces, op. 119, close the book, if you will, on Brahms’s four late sets of piano pieces, and in fact, on his final words at the piano, period. Composed in 1893, they are not, however, his last works. Still to come were the two clarinet sonatas, the Four Serious Songs, and the Eleven Chorale Preludes.

If Brahms uses the piano to explore keyboard textures in the Ballades, in this final set of piano pieces, he uses the keyboard to explore colors and the mood effects those colors can have. No one can listen to the first of these pieces, the Intermezzo in B Minor, and not see an ultrasound of the embryonic Debussy floating in the placental Reflets dans l’eau.

Perhaps it’s the way Nada plays the piece, and the others of the group as well, that contributes to the effect. Marked rubato, tempo fluctuations, halting pauses, and the elongation of note values create an impression of rhythm untethered to bar lines and swimming in a kind of slow-motion water ballet.

Ordinarily, I’d probably be critical of this approach to Brahms, but Nada has a way of making it sound, not just pleasing in the moment, but right for all time. She dares to be different, and in doing so, sheds new light on familiar pieces. That makes her Brahms cycle, in my opinion, one of the more interesting ones out there, and one that is strongly recommended.

– Jerry Dubins

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