Brahms - Intermezzo in B minor Op.119 No. 1
The last piano works that Brahms published were the four Klavierstücke (piano pieces) Op.119. Dating from 1892, the Op.119 set includes three intermezzos and a concluding rhapsody. Concerning the first intermezzo, Brahms wrote the following to his great friend Clara Schumann:
… I’m tempted to copy out a small piano piece for you, because I’d like to know how you get along with it. It is crawling with dissonances! These are deemed appropriate and can be explained—but maybe they won’t be to your taste, in which case I wish they were less appropriate and more to your taste. The little piece is exceptionally melancholic and ‘to be played very slowly’ is no understatement. Every bar and every note must sound like a ritardando, as if one wanted to draw melancholy out of each and every one with an abandon and pleasure derived from the dissonances! Good Lord, this description will surely whet your appetite! …
To the early twenty-first century listener, the piece is unlikely to sound in any way dissonant, just intensely and deeply expressive – a true product of late Romanticism. However, if this letter tells us anything about Brahms’s wishes for the performance of his music, it must be that it should at all costs not be hurried.
Pupil Match & Suitability
The qualities that this piece requires include musical sensitivity, warmth of tone, subtlety of voicing and skilful handling of rubato. In places a large hand is advantageous though not imperative, and finger dexterity is not particularly an issue, although finger independence is nonetheless important.
Emotional maturity is needed for the music to sound truly expressive, and it is probably not best suited to a child, even if s/he has the technical capacity to play the piece.
The music invites a fairly static playing position but one in which suitable vertical movement of the arms can achieve an appropriate tone quality and dynamic range.
Style & Tempo
Judging from Brahms’s letter to Clara Schumann, the composer wished the piece to be played very slowly although he contented himself with the simple instruction ‘adagio’.
Obviously this leaves some latitude and each performer is likely to feel the motion of the music slightly differently, but a metronome setting of between roughly quaver = 60 and quaver = 72 should yield an appropriate pace.
Much slower than quaver = 60 is likely to render the music overly static, ‘dragging its feet’ as it were, whereas faster than quaver = 72 may make the tempo sound inappropriately restless and hurried.
Phrasing & Articulation
The dynamic range required in this piece is not huge but it needs to be projected if the music is to achieve its expressive potential.
Brahms has been unusually precise about his dynamic requirements for this piece, so taking careful note of these should aid the interpretative process.
Tone & Texture
The dynamic range required in this piece is not huge but it needs to be projected if the music is to achieve its expressive potential. Brahms has been unusually precise about his dynamic requirements for this piece, so taking careful note of these should aid the interpretative process.
It may be useful to think of the dynamic range as a seamless continuum rather than as an oppositional forte/piano division. Although the former clearly needs to be louder than the latter, the tone quality, as suggested above, should always be cantabile, so the fuller sound needs to preserve the warmth of the piano sound.
The tone production will need to be aided and abetted by the use of skilful pedalling – of which more later.
Much of the technique in this piece will be concerned with two aspects:
(i) getting around the notes with ease, so as not to feel that the performance is driven by worries about stretches or any other aspect of technique;
(ii) feeling sufficiently free and able to create the necessary musical colours to bring out all the vital textural and lyrical elements.
Although good fingering does not perhaps play quite the crucial role that it does in more active music laced with tricky passagework, it is nonetheless important for other reasons.
There is of course no single correct way to pedal this music and the ultimate gauge of good pedalling is the pianist’s own ears supported by appropriate harmonic knowledge and textural taste.
However the pedalling is certainly not straightforward and a single strategy applied throughout the piece is unlikely to be very successful. The following suggestions may therefore be helpful.
It may be expedient to redistribute some of the chording from bar 58 to the end because precisely following Brahms’s notation may lead to uncomfortable thumb collisions, however musically appropriate the notation seems on paper.
In many places the upper left-hand note can be taken by the right, as in bars 58 (beat 2), 59 (beat 2), and 60 (beats 2-3). A similar tactic can be adopted in bars 62–64, and again in the last bar where the lower right-hand F-sharp may be taken by the left hand, and the upper left-hand B by the right.
For much of the time in this piece the touch needs to be delicate but also warm. When playing the accompanying figures in the opening bars and later equivalent places, the fingers barely need to move, rising just enough to ensure that the note sounds when the key is depressed.
A useful preliminary exercise is to rest the finger tips on the surface of the keys and allow each finger in turn to drop into the key, experiencing just how much pressure is needed for the minimum sound-level to be produced. The sensation involved can then be assimilated and reproduced as necessary.
Judging the ideal pace is a significant factor in the success of a performance. Pacing is intimately connected to the mood which is serious, melancholy and reflective, and so other performance elements such as tone, texture (including pedalling) and rubato need to be engaged sensitively and appropriately.
Pianos built in the 1890s – grand pianos especially – were not radically different from their modern counterparts although the nineteenth-century instruments tended to be mellower in sound, so harshness should be avoided at all costs.
If you have access to a vintage Steinway or Bechstein that has been well preserved, you may get an idea of the pianistic sound world with which Brahms was probably familiar.
See further specific advice on shaping the phrasing in the Phrasing & Articulation section.
An excellent performance will demonstrate:
Mastery of the notes allied to subtlety of tone control and dynamics, finely contoured phrasing and a seamless legato (as required); a sustained tempo at a suitably contemplative pace including expressive rubato as appropriate; a keen harmonic awareness reflected by skilful pedalling and flexible pacing; a grasp of the musical essence and strong projection of this in performance.
A good performance will demonstrate:
Confidence in playing the notes, with some subtlety of tone and dynamic control, a sense of phrasing and a good legato where appropriate; a sustained tempo at a suitably contemplative pace including elements of expressive rubato; harmonic awareness reflected by appropriate pedalling and pacing; reasonable understanding of the musical essence and some projection of this in performance.
A sound performance will demonstrate:
Adequate knowledge of the notes along with evidence of tone control, dynamic variety, and some idea of phrasing and legato; a generally sustained tempo at a suitable pace including some flexibility; basic harmonic awareness reflected by mainly clean pedalling; a basic understanding of the musical sense, although its projection in performance may not always be consistent.