Review of Nada’s CD: Capriccios & Intermezzos
This is Nada’s fourth-and-a-half album in her survey of Brahms’s complete—and I mean, really complete—works for solo piano, an enterprise that has led her to comb the composer’s catalog for some of the rarest of rarities. I suspect that when she has finally completed this project, there will be not a crumb left on the floor to feed a hungry ant. Her first album was split between Brahms’s op. 116 Piano Pieces and the rarely recorded Piano Sonata by Paul Dukas.
Nada’s approach has been to mix the familiar with the unfamiliar. For example, on her album titled “Nada Meets Brahms” (MEII 707129224026), she included two little known early pieces, a Sarabande and Gigue in B Minor, alongside the oft-recorded Ballades, op. 10, the late Piano Pieces, op. 119, and the Scherzo in EI Minor, op. 4. I reviewed that release in just the last issue, 42:3, where I discuss the Sarabande and Gigue in some detail.
On another volume, titled “Nada in Hamburg with Johannes Brahms” (MEII 700261439303), she gives us the composer’s big, sprawling Piano Sonata No. 1, along with his Chaconne after Bach for the Left Hand Alone, an Etude after Schubert for Left Hand Alone, and three of Brahms’s Chorale Preludes for organ in Nada’s own piano transcriptions.
She continues her exploration of the chorales on the present volume with two more of them, labeled Nos. 7 and 3. Buyers of Nada’s albums may find themselves confused, as I was, by Nada’s numbering of the chorales, since they don’t correspond to the order in which they’re most frequently encountered on disc. In an e-mail exchange, Nada was able to set me straight. She explained that she is using the Breitkopf & Härtel edition, which gives the chorales in their composition order. I then came across a further explanation in the album note to Kevin Bowyer’s Nimbus recording of the chorales, which states, “The original autograph of all eleven was found on Brahms’s desk after his death in 1897. The first seven were originally numbered differently (1, 5, 2, 6, 7, 3, 4) from the order we now know. The published order came from an apparent engraver’s model in the hand of copyist William Kupfer, with corrections in Brahms’s hand. The remaining four preludes were not included in this fair copy, and retain their original numbering.”
Thus far, each of Nada’s albums has been received with a positive review from Paul Orgel and/or me. In terms of rarities, this fifth album contains some real gems. The Theme and Variations in D Minor is Brahms’s own arrangement for piano of the second movement from his String Sextet, op. 18. He presented the piece to Clara Schumann on her birthday, and deemed it worthy to be published on its own, separate from the Sextet that spawned it.
The first entry, Anhalt 1, in the Appendix to Brahms’s work catalog are Five Studies for Piano Left Hand Alone. They are: (1) Etude after Chopin’s Etude in F Minor, op. 25/2; (2) Rondo after the finale from Weber’s Piano Sonata No. 1, op. 24; (3) Presto from finale of Bach’s Unaccompanied Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001 (1st version); (4) Presto from finale of Bach’s Unaccompanied Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001 (2ndt version); and (5) Chaconne from Unaccompanied Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004. From these five left-hand etudes, Nada gives us the Chopin (1) and the first version of the Bach Presto (3).
Brahms originally conceived his Hungarian Dances for piano four hands. They proved so popular and financially profitable for both him and his publisher that he arranged the first 10 of them for piano one player. Here Nada includes four of them, Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 5.
Also covered on these two well-filled discs are the more familiar Eight Piano Pieces of op. 76, the Three Intermezzos of op. 117, the Variations on a Theme by Schumann, op. 9, and the Piano Sonata No. 2 in FT Minor, op. 2.
With a total of four and a half Brahms albums under her belt, Nada still has a ways to go, even if you count only the composer’s most familiar solo piano works. Still to be covered are the Piano Sonata No. 3, the “Handel” and “Paganini” Variations, and the Piano Pieces, op. 118. Beyond that, I don’t know how far Nada is prepared to go. Among Brahms catalog entries under the WoO heading are a considerable number for piano, including several cadenzas to concertos by Mozart, and other miscellaneous pieces. Having come this far, I’m confident that Nada will give us at least one more album with the Third Sonata, the “Handel” and “Paganini” Variations, and the op. 118 Piano Pieces. But even if she closes her piano lid on Brahms after that, her survey of the composer’s piano music will still be the most complete one I know.
Nada’s approach to Brahms is one that manages to thread the needle between his most personal and intimate utterances in the op. 117 Intermezzos and his most public bravura statements in the youthful, heroic Piano Sonata No. 2. The former requires rapt, almost trance-like concentration, while the latter requires physical stamina, endurance, panoptic technique, and the ability to bring into focus the organization of a large-scale musical structure. All of these assets Nada possesses in abundance.
But there is something else, and that is Nada’s sensitivity to Brahms’s moods and muse. Hers is a Romantic Brahms, with subtle rubato, hesitations across bar lines—for example, the almost imperceptible pause for a breath at end of bar eight in the Intermezzo, op. 117/1—and colorizing changes in touch and tone. But it never crosses the line into exaggeration or self-indulgence. In some cases—the Intermezzos, opp. 117/2 and 117/3, for instance—Nada’s tempos are even a bit faster than expected, but her shaping and shading of phrases, always sensitive to the music’s momentary mood, gives rise to a feeling of supple flow that never sounds rushed. In a word, this is some of the most “communicative” Brahms playing I’ve heard.
I seem to recall that it was Pierre Boulez who complained of Brahms’s incessant writing in thirds and sixths. So, as if to poke him in the eye, here we have Brahms’s Etude in thirds and sixths. Chopin’s original Etude in F Minor, op. 25/2, nicknamed “The Bees,” is actually a study in polyrhythm, with four groups of eighth-note triplets in the right hand against two groups of quarter-note triplets in the left hand, essentially setting up the feeling of duple vs. compound meters. Marked Presto, Chopin’s etude goes so fast that you don’t really hear the desynchronization between the right and left hands, but looking at the score, you can see that the quarter-note triplets in the left hand don’t align with the first note of each eighth-note triplet in the right hand.
It’s easy to see why this particular etude would have appealed to Brahms, given his own fetish for rhythmic brainteasers. In his take on Chopin’s etude, Brahms retains the left- hand quarter-note triplets as is, but adds a whole new dimension of difficulty to the piece by making “double stops” in thirds and sixths out of the right-hand eighth-note triplets. I use the term “double stops” advisedly because the right-hand part now resembles a Paganini caprice.
It stands to reason that the fingering difficulty Brahms adds to the etude would slow it down considerably. Pollini breezes through Chopin’s original in 1:29. It takes Nada 3:21 to navigate Brahms’s nasty piece of business. Seems about right to me.
Nada earns her honorary Roma credentials with her strongly idiomatic renderings of the Hungarian Dances, and another honorable mention for her deeply poignant performance of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Schumann, op. 9.
Brahms’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in FT Minor, op. 2, is interesting in a number of ways. To begin with, as I’m sure most readers know, it was the first composed of the three sonatas, but publication was withheld until after the Sonata No. 1 in C Major made it into print.
Second, for such an early work—Brahms was 19, going on 20, when he wrote the sonata in 1852, it shows rather unexpected nonconformity to conventions of Classical form. The first movement is without exposition repeat or full coda. Instead, the formal and dramatic weight of the piece are shifted to the finale, which is a fully worked-out sonata form with exposition repeat. According to pianist Martin Jones, “op. 2 is a type of ‘fantasy-sonata’ in the spirit of some of Beethoven’s works, and later of Robert Schumann’s piano sonatas.”
Given the limitation of Western music’s 12-note chromatic scale, melodic invention is finite. It’s inevitable that sequences of notes will be duplicated time and again from one piece of music to another. What makes them identifiably different is the rhythm they’re set to and context. Why do I mention this? Play the first four notes, and only the first four notes, that open the finale to this Brahms sonata, and ask 10 people to tell you what’s it’s from. I can almost guarantee you that nine out of 10 of them will say it’s the beginning of the Promenade from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
I think it was wise for Brahms to heed Schumann’s advice to delay publication of the FT-Minor Sonata until after the C-Major Sonata. The barely-out-of-his-teens Brahms had not yet developed his own distinctive keyboard voice. Perhaps he was trying to distil the disjunct and disjointed manner of expression in some of Beethoven’s later piano works, as Jones suggests.
In any case, Nada’s performance is not a barnstorming one that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. In her hands, the sonata comes across as the work of a composer older in years and already buffeted about a bit by life’s experiences. There are layers of complexity and poignancy in Nada’s reading that I haven’t often heard in readings of this piece.
Having heard much of Nada’s Brahms survey up to this point, I believe that 25 years or so from now her Brahms will be looked upon as having the sort of historical distinction and significance that today is accorded to Julius Katchen, one of great Brahms interpreters of the past. But you don’t have to wait 25 years to appreciate Nada’s achievement; you can appreciate it in the here and now. Jerry Dubins