Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118 composed in 1893
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Intermezzo in A Minor
Intermezzo in A Major
Ballade in G Minor
Intermezzo in F Minor
Romance in F Major
Intermezzo in E-Flat Minor
Program note by Harry Haskell © 2018:
In December 1890, Johannes Brahms presented his publisher with the manuscript of his String Quintet, Op. 111, accompanied by a terse message: “With this slip, bid farewell to notes of mine.” As it turned out, the 57-year-old composer’s announcement of his retirement was premature; he soon got a fresh wind and went on to pen some of his most beguiling music, including the Four Serious Songsand a series of enchanting chamber works for clarinet, the fruit of his late-life friendship with clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Nor did Brahms neglect his own instrument. Although he didn’t feel up to writing another major solo work for the piano at that stage of his life, he demonstrated his unflagging creative vitality by turning out four sets of piano miniatures, Opp. 116-119, in quick succession.
The six Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces), Op. 118, were composed in the summer of 1893 in the Austrian spa resort of Bad Ischl, Brahms’s beloved warm-weather getaway from the hustle and bustle of Vienna. His interest in the character piece—a favorite Romantic genre closely associated with his revered Robert Schumann—was hardly new, as his earlier Ballades, Op. 10, Klavierstücke,Op. 76, and Rhapsodies, Op. 79, attest. But his intense concentration on short keyboard pieces was unprecedented, and it suggests that Brahms was not merely turning away from the long-form works that had occupied him in the past but embracing a genre that enabled him to distill his mastery of mood, craft and piano technique to its essence.
The opening Intermezzo in A minor, the shortest and most compressed of the six pieces, is based on a single theme, its surging phrases and rippling passagework ultimately dissolving in an A-major mist. The other five pieces exhibit the symmetrical ABA form that Brahms favored, with a contrasting interlude at the center. The tenderly nostalgic mood of the second Intermezzo, in A major, is dispelled by the energetic, galloping rhythms of the G-minor Ballade, with its quiet midsection harmonized in sweet-sounding thirds. In the F-minor Intermezzo, Brahms plays with metrical ambiguity by blurring the line between upbeats and downbeats. The last two pieces are even more unsettling, as the nobly striding melody and fantasy-like midsection of the F-major Romance give way to the darkly mysterious and impassioned Intermezzo in E-flat minor.