Hidden treasures in Brahms’s early piano works

Boris Giltburg on rediscovering neglected scores

Hidden treasures in Brahms’s early piano works

Sometimes you pick up the score of a work you had previously found little interest in and idly play a page or two – and suddenly something clicks; you play on, then play a bit more, then stand up and pace excitedly around the piano, only to sit down again and with ever growing enthusiasm dive back into the score. In the following days, you want to practise nothing else, and if this isn’t possible (if, say, you’re on tour, and performances with completely different repertoire loom ahead), you still can’t help yourself and must every-now-and-then open the score furtively, and guiltily play through a movement or two. Your head is constantly occupied with these pieces (obsessed would better describe it), and the very fact of their new existence in your life fills you with a warm glow. It’s very much like being in love.

This happened to me last month, and not with one piece, but with an entire set of them – some early Brahms works. I love Brahms deeply and passionately; his symphonies, the German Requiem, much of his chamber music and many of his lieder are all works I would tirelessly listen to again and again. As a performer, the two piano concertos are unbeatable favourites (Rachmaninov's No. 1 is the only concerto that can compete), as are some of his late shorter pieces, with the Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2 topping the list. Yet somehow, I’ve almost completely disregarded his early piano works, with the exception of the Third Sonata, which I played as a teenager and was performing on tour last month.

My score also contains the two other Sonatas, the Ballades Op. 10 and the Scherzo Op. 4. During a break in practising, I decided to give the Scherzo a try (having with you scores of works you are not playing right now is a constant temptation), and this was the tipping point: I got to the second trio and suddenly thought, 'oh, this is beautiful' – or rather, 'this could be a tune from an old Soviet movie.' I finished the Scherzo and, already a little bit hooked, decided to try the other works as well. The First Sonata, I realised with much delight, was not at all the bombastic show-off piece I had mistakenly assumed it to be, but a wonderfully fresh, energetic and rich work, with much lyricism and atmosphere to balance all the action. Yes, there’s bravura, and to say that in the last movement Brahms was not trying to show off would be grossly untrue but, hey, he was 20 years old! The entire work just oozes youthful self-assuredness, and does it in an irresistibly likable way. And what fire and dead-serious determination in the third movement. I was completely won over.

The Ballades, which I tried next (as you see, it turned out to be quite a long break), revealed a world of grim storytelling, with several beautiful and poetic spots in its midst like rays of light, all the more precious for their dark surroundings. It’s a world I’m yet to explore: the Ballades rival late Brahms in maturity and intricacy of composition, and much of it lies deep beneath the surface and will require time to unlock. The Second Sonata (just a cursory glance, as I really needed to get back to practising his Third Sonata) seemed to hold much dramatic potential, and the Variations on a theme by Schumann, Op. 9 (an even more cursory glance for the sake of completeness) left the impression of a gentle flower.  

During one break, my world suddenly became richer by over two hours of new music; all I wanted to know was how soon I could plunge into it. The repertoire for the next season was all set, but waiting for 18 months could never do; in the days that followed, with a bit of tactical negotiation, I persuaded the promoters of a South American tour to take the First Sonata. So, come August, I’ll have a fully legitimate reason to practice it from morning till evening, and then perform it half a dozen times; a fact that, nearly a month since the initial encounter with the work, still puts a silly and very wide grin on my face.


– Boris Giltburg




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  • Article Type: | Blog |
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