Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Brahms' Piano Sonata Op. 1

We are going to assert from the outset that the musical artist and personality that was essentially the same throughout his life was fully formed by the time he was 20 when this piece was published. Of course it has predecessors in the works of Beethoven and Schumann, but Brahms has at the beginning of his composition cycle written essentially a symphony for solo piano and it should damn well better be played that way too. LOL!

The beginning of this symphony, a straight sonata-allegro form traceable in like form all the way back to Papa Haydn, must be played slow enough to meld all the voices and establish certain spaces, atmospheres, in the music as it is played, but fast enough to propel itself through time and space. There are many ways to play it and there have been those who played it in strict tempo. Increasingly we are left cold by such performances that do not comprehend the dimensions of this piece and its intense emotional grammar. 

We'd begin with the performance by Grigory Sokolov, which to put it mildly, if you know this piece, you should be properly astounded. Consider that after all Brahms was out of Schumann and a contemporary of all the famous composers of the mid to late 19th century. His musical conception, mid century, the exact same year Steinway & Sons set up shop in America, was and is symphonic and the pianos of the age were getting better all the time.

The heart and soul of the mid nineteenth century musical culture centred on being able to deliver orchestra like sounds via a few musical instruments; chamber music in the best circles and always solo pianism. They did not have radio or television back then and believe it or not, the ability to read music was considered part of any real education. Of course some did and some couldn't and so on. Pianism has been that way too from the very beginning; a personal and hence reclusive kind of thing. Piano music is the place where pianists go to recover from contact with the rest of the world. I'd be fairly certain Brahms felt that way too. Sokolov is really quite astounding; we'd say in the parlance; he clearly gets Brahms!

Johannes Brahms Piano Sonata #1 in C Major Op. 1
Grigory Sokolov, piano. Recorded live concert.

Sergey Schepkin also plays this piece rather well. About the first thing I noticed was that he didn't take the tempo strictly through the first movement. The rest of the piece followed nicely. He also understands the intensity and the symphonic nature of Brahms well.

Johannes Brahms Piano Sonata #1 in C Major Op. 1
Sergey Schepkin, piano.

Finally we present a picture from this time or perhaps slightly earlier, of Brahms striking a particularly Masonic pose. We have evidence of Verdi's and Liszt's possible involvement with Masonry, but of Brahms it says this:

“Brahms is listed in many books and publications as a Mason. Although Brahms did compose several pieces of Masonic music, there is no evidence that he ever joined the fraternity. Brahms lived much of his life in Vienna and Freemasonry was illegal there during Brahms life. This information was obtained thanks to support from the German National Masonic Museum.”
For my own reasons, I have always preferred to think of Brahms as behaving very much as I would have done; never a joiner be. I can't imagine Brahms consenting to participate in such things as Masonic rituals, etc. It would compromise something fundamentally individualist in his outlook, something that frequently shines forth through his music. However, I can just as easily see anyone joining such an organization to seek a network for one's work. Again, somehow given the times and the competition, there was always and from the beginning a certain quality of output that Brahms would ever insist upon; he was going to deliver to the world nothing but his truest and best, always. After all, the rest was burned at his own hands. It didn't make the cut. 

In succeeding episodes, we're going after a review of Brahms works from Op. 2 through Op 67, right before his first symphony. We're going to look at Brahms work in relation to those who immediately preceded him and those that followed him. The last half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century was the Himalaya period for Western music, a time that was unique and will probably never come again. It was Brahms perhaps more than any other that typified and exemplified much that was best and brightest n this age. 

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