Program notes: Augustin Hadelich with Festival Musicians

Monday, August 21, 2023 , 6:30 PM

Johannes Brahms: Rhapsody in G Minor for Piano, Op. 79, No. 2

Johannes Brahms: Intermezzo in E-flat Major for Piano, Op. 117, No. 1

Johannes Brahms: Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major for Strings, Op. 18

Rhapsody in G Minor for Piano, Op. 79, No. 2

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Composed: 1879
Length: c. 7 minutes
Instrumentation: Solo piano

This program explores the music of Brahms with three pieces spanning nearly the entirety of his career. Brahms wrote two so-called Rhapsodies for piano in 1879, titles suggested to him by fellow composer and dear friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg. Brahms would dedicate both Rhapsodies to Herzogenberg. The Brahms Rhapsodies, especially the second one, follow a well-defined, recognizable structure. The term “rhapsody” is tricky to pin down in music—its meaning has evolved over time and was never truly precise. However, one approach to the rhapsody grew out of the literary association of the word with epic poetry: effusive, impassioned, and unrestrained in expression (if not form). This better captures the spirit of Brahms’s work, which seems to begin in the middle of a thought and spins forward with a compelling mix of anguish, power, pathos, and dreaminess.

What to listen for

  • There’s a triplet pattern that continues through nearly every bar of this piece, often in the middle register of three “voices.”
  • Watch Mr. Henderson’s hands closely and you’ll see that his left hand plays the low-register voice, his right hand plays the middle-register voice, and his two hands split playing duties on the high-register voice. This necessitates frequent crossing over of the left hand as it grabs the highest notes, which the right hand can’t reach as it needs to keep the mid-range pattern going.

Intermezzo in E-flat Major for Piano, Op. 117, No. 1

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Composed: 1892
Length: c. 6 minutes
Instrumentation: Solo piano

Brahms wrote 18 individual piano pieces that he titled Intermezzo, most of which appear as part of the late collections of his Ops. 116 to 119. The Intermezzi share a concentrated intensity, an emotional immediacy, and a lyrical sensibility that gives them an intimacy as if we are peering through a window into Brahms’s innermost thoughts and reflections.

Brahms called the three Intermezzi of Op. 117 “lullabies of my sorrow,” and the tender E-flat Intermezzo, with its gentle rocking rhythm, is particularly evocative of a lullaby. In fact, Brahms directly acknowledges the reference in a quote at the beginning of the score for the piece, a rough German translation of the first two lines from a Scottish ballad:

Schlaf sanft, mein Kind, schlaf sanft und schön!
Mich dauert’s sehr, dich weinen sehn.

Sleep softly my child, sleep softly
and well!
It hurts me so to see you cry.

The balance of the ballad is actually quite pensive and melancholy, a character captured in Brahms’s sensitive setting.

What to listen for

  • As in the Rhapsody, the middle-register voice often has the melody in this Intermezzo, offering a subtle but crucial technical challenge for the pianist.

String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 18

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Composed: 1860
Length: c. 7 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 violins, 2 violas, and 2 cellos

Music of 19th-century Germanic composers was destined to be compared to the celebrated works of Beethoven, a comparison of which Brahms was acutely aware. Schumann even proclaimed him to be the heir to Beethoven’s musical genius when he was barely out of his teenage years. Brahms carried this weight with him, writing as late as 1872 in a letter, “You do not know what it is like hearing His footsteps constantly behind me.” The genres that were “Beethoven’s”—the symphony and the string quartet—were religiously avoided by Brahms until he turned 40. Instead, for his first chamber work without piano Brahms chose to write a sextet for two violins, two violas, and two cellos. In addition to the advantage of composing for an unusual combination of instruments to which few pieces could be compared, the sextet provided Brahms with the ability to treat the second cello as an independent melodic voice (as opposed to a foundation for the overall harmonic structure, which is the cello’s typical role in the string quartet).

The Op. 18 Sextet was first performed in 1860 by a group of musicians assembled by Brahms’s good friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim was quite taken by the work, which he helped Brahms refine. Clara Schumann, to whom Brahms had sent a piano arrangement of the second movement for her birthday the previous month, was present at the premiere concert and later reported, “It was even more beautiful than I had anticipated, and my expectations were already high.”

What to listen for

  • The presence of the extra cello is exploited at the very beginning of the sextet, giving a harmonic foundation to the first cello’s rich, gently swaying opening melody.
  • The second movement of the Sextet is a theme and variations, a favorite form of Brahms, with successive variations using shorter and shorter note values (until Variation IV).
  • In the final movement, make note of Brahms’s setting of the upper three strings against the lower three, heard most clearly in the final appearance of the rondo theme before the coda.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi