Lupu plays Brahms, Angelich plays Rachmaninoff

In his fascinating reminisces of Radu Lupu, producer Michael Hass describes the torments the late pianist had while recording, but also notes that the Brahms F minor Sonata was, “more or less recorded in a single take.”

Brahms’s three piano sonatas were among his earliest published compositions. They all have their beauties but only the last, Op. 5 in F minor, is firmly established in the repertoire. Young Brahms wrote very thick chords and octaves almost constantly, a kind of symphonic conception for the piano, which means the sonatas are a bit ungrateful to play and certainly harder than they sound. Running scalar passagework was the default setting for Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin — and also beloved by Brahms’s mentor Robert Schumann — but there’s almost no running passagework in the Brahms sonatas. He is closer to the rich melodies of Schubert, but most of Schubert’s chords fit the hand well enough. One needs to wrestle with early Brahms.

The chords are made of granite but there is plenty of youthful exuberance on display over the course of five movements and 50 minutes. Perhaps the longest piano sonata yet composed? Perhaps the first sonata to have more than four movements? Perhaps the first sonata to have a bar of 5/4?

It was published in 1853, the same year as the remarkable Sonata by Franz Liszt. (Together, Liszt and Brahms kick of the “epic sonata” section at the bottom of DTM’s “Wagnerian Piano.”)

The first movement begins Beethoven-style with an unforgettable motto. When straight triads intermingle in the second theme there is something modal or folkloric in the harmony: this is the real Brahms coming through.

Lupu takes the exposition repeat, and plays it the same but somehow a bit different. Every chord is balanced just so, and the whole thing seems like one big melody. It’s twelve minutes but under Lupu’s guidance goes by in a flash.

The second movement is an epic Andante that shocks by starting in A-flat but ending in D-flat. (First time this happened in a piano sonata?) The opening falling thirds are a familiar Brahms conceit, but the the following D-flat themes and development seem quite Wagnerian to this listener.

The Romantic composers took programmatic chances. Schumann put a short quote from Schlegel at the top of his Op. 17 Fantasy, probably thinking of Clara Wieck, later to become Clara Schumann.

Resounding through all the notes
In the earth’s colorful dream
There sounds a faint long-drawn note
For the one who listens in secret

Not to be outdone, Brahms puts a bit from Sternau the top of this Andante:

Through evening’s shade, the pale moon gleams
While rapt in love’s ecstatic dreams
Two hearts are fondly beating.

Lupu’s command of line and poetry is breathtaking. Almost an erotic experience, as it should be.

Next is the noisy Scherzo, which has some amazing modulations and a pensive trio. More impressive is the next movement, a death march marked “Intermezzo,” which might be the first occasion Brahms uses this word, a word that would in time become almost exclusive property of this composer. Again, descending thirds in the melody. Lupu’s hands make the drums rattle and the horses neigh with fright.

The Schumann-esque 6/8 finale is diffuse and hard to interpret, with many themes that stop and start. Perhaps the many tremolos are more suitable for strings than pianists, while the many walking chords would sound good on the organ. Famously, one of the tunes, “F-A-E,” is an in-joke with other men about living life apart from women: “Lonely but free.” Brahms was only 20 years old, young and dumb, but he never did marry.

Op. 5 is not a piece I know well. While Lupu didn’t change my prejudice going in — that only the first, second and fourth movements are matchlessly magnificent — he certainly plays it as well can be played.

Along with Birtwistle and Lupu, this week saw the death of Nicholas Angelich. I was not familiar with Angelich’s playing but thought I would try his recording of the Rachmaninoff Études-Tableaux, recorded in 1995 when the pianist was just 25 years old.

Rachmaninoff was a man out of time, a 20th-century composer who did not eagerly join the contemporary search for forbidden sounds. (When asked why he programmed some Debussy, he replied, “I want to show my public this is bad music,” or something to that effect.) One gets a vivid sense of his titanic pianism from the many early lo-fi recordings. (I’m dubious of the piano-rolls and other modern reproductions. The market is flooded with glossy product, but it is best to hear the actual recordings, scratchy ambience and all.)

Rachmaninoff’s orchestral and choral music has value, but in the end, this was a pianist’s pianist who wrote for other pianists.

The Études-Tableaux aren’t completely even in quality but the best of them are sensational. All have a unique perspective, and exhibit not just astonishing instrumental know-how but a mysterious and sardonic wit. Indeed, the pieces can be quite goofy and strange, at times sounding surprisingly like the much younger Prokofiev or Shostakovich. Rachmaninoff was never a modernist but the closest he came was in the Études-Tableaux.

Op. 33

  1. F minor march with completely wrong phrase lengths. Nice.
  2. An icy wind of C major and a glorious Russian tune. Angelich handles the concluding trills perfectly.
  3. After a solemn and utterly creative minor key chorale, the vista clears to pure C major and another fabulous Rach melody.
  4. One of the goofier ones, a horn call gone amuck, with rich counterpoint and a feel almost like stride piano.
  5. A blaze of E-flat minor glory sometimes called “The Snow Storm.” Angelich can play it. Wow.
  6. The heroics continue in major, a stirring parade that reminds me of “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Pictures at an Exhibition. (Of course, all of Rach’s “Tableaux” are a response to Mussorgsky’s “Pictures.”)
  7. A sad song is garnished with an outsized cadenza.
  8. One of my favorites, an obsessive C-sharp minor cry into the void, with a truly terrifying two-handed run and a final page of chaotic counterpoint.

Op. 39. Conventional wisdom suggests that the second book is even more impressive than the first.

  1. A dark moto perpetuo in C minor with quite extraordinary tonal harmonic progressions created from dissonant intervals.
  2. The longest of either set, an A minor song that wanders around.
  3. Angelich is particularly impressive when a whiplash technique is required. To play this wonderful F-sharp minor etude requires unfathomable courage and willpower.
  4. This B minor journey is another of my favorites. I see a dog sled in Russia, winter, a fox in the snow. In this case I don’t think Angelich needs to play quite this fast and choppy, he could take a slightly more scenic route.
  5. Unlike most of the Études-Tableaux, this E-flat minor song has had some general popular appeal. A beautiful work, resigned to its luxurious fate.
  6. Back to the goofy with a ludicrous episode in A minor. The legend goes that the piece stems from the way Rach would tell the “Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf” fairytale to his daughter. Again, this kind of nervous chatter suits Angelich perfectly. I love it.
  7. Begins as a chorale before transitioning into a menacing tromp. The explosion of bells at the end is unforgettable: Rachmaninoff at the height of his powers.
  8. Anywhere else this modal D minor double-note etude would delight, but it’s a bit of a let down after the previous masterwork. In general there are pacing issues with Rachmaninoff’s books of Preludes and Etudes. They are probably better off curated a few a time than enjoyed as a whole batch.
  9. I’ve never liked the last D major march that much either, but maybe its just me.

Angelich’s later recordings include Brahms, Liszt, Beethoven concertos on a Pleyel piano, and a collaboration with jazz pianist Baptiste Trotignon, Different Spaces, which features a piano concerto as well as composed duos for Angelich and Trotignon together.