Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 2: the extremes…

I learned this recently, Brahms’ most famous piece for piano. It dates from 1893, near the end of his life. Everybody, it seems, plays it, and there are literally many dozens of recordings on YouTube to sample. I’ve been living with the piece for a couple of months now, thinking through it.

In the process I’ll listen to another recording from time to time and have probably heard 20 or more by now. Oddly, the great majority of these I’m just not crazy about. Partly this has to do with the way the piece is heard as a whole – the role the different sections have.

For example, those 8 bars of slow-moving pianissimo chords about halfway through really seem to me to be the fulcrum of the piece, in a sense. The design is more-or-less A B C D C’ B (abbreviated) A. A, B, and C sections flow throughout with eighth notes, but those eight bars right at the center have full quarter-note chords in each hand. They are, again, pianissimo, and also bear the slowest tempo marking of the piece. They really need to be hushed, startling. And often I find this just doesn’t come through.

Quite a few pianists also tend toward an extreme with this piece tempo-wise. They either go for a faster tempo with, I feel, just a bit too much restraint, or else (more usually) they milk every … single … note…

Here’s one recording I love – from Radu Lupu:

I play this at pretty much exactly 6 minutes, which probably isn’t far from the average. But to give an idea of how great a discrepancy there can be in the interpretation of a piece, consider the fact that Wilhelm Kempff plays it at a near-breathless 4:29, while Ivo Pogorelich clocks in at 8:51. Now that’s one vast difference in view between world-class pianists. But it gets even crazier: there’s a live performance of Pogorelich’s that manages to draw the piece out to a truly symphonic 10:45!

I must admit, I don’t connect very well with Pogorelich here. I made it through each of these once, and tried to keep an open mind. But for me the soul of the piece is lost in places – its flow. The live performance especially doesn’t even sound like Brahms to me. It’s just … painful. Pogorelich is famous for unorthodoxies of various kinds, especially tempi, but this feels a little off the charts. At a couple of points I really thought he might actually just … stop for awhile. (I will try again sometime though.) On the other hand it’s quite possible to go the other way and miss a number of moments of pure exquisiteness through trying to avoid excessive rubato of that kind, as I somehow feel Kempff does.

The piece is very delicate and special, extremely beautiful. And hard to get just right. I took to it somehow and learned it quickly – some pieces just lie under the fingers and others really take their time. But for whatever reason I’m more pleased with the way I play this than with anything I’ve learned in quite awhile. I may even see if I can record it at the recital hall and if so will post.

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