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Euterpe''s Song

New York
Carnegie Hall
04/28/2002 -  
Johannes Brahms: Six Pieces, Op. 118; Sonatas Nos. 2 & 3
Krystian Zimerman (piano)

“With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood
that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another.”

Jorge Luis Borges, The Circular Ruins

Despite the unbridled enthusiasm for them exhibited by Robert Schumann, Brahms never wrote another piano sonata after the age of twenty, confining his large output for the solo keyboard to individual pieces of disparate lengths, from aphoristic waltzes to fully developed variation essays, but always without movements. He did, however, return to the sublime andante espressivo from the Third Sonata often, performing it as a stand-alone piece throughout his long career as a recitalist. This jewel sounds very much like one of his exceptional valedictories, written over forty years later and begs the question of whether the late opera look back lovingly to this kernel of mature truth or are rather engendered by it. The entire child is father to the man argument is especially significant in the career of this pianistic genius who used his soundboard as a sounding board for such profound ideas and methods of expression. The abounding energy of the freshly discovered young messiah with the handsome romantic visage is as different from the thoughtful reflections of the bearded paterfamilias of 19th century Germanic music as are their early portraits and late photographs, and yet the harmonic thought of the Brahms of the 1850’s is essentially the same as that of the 1890’s, rather amazing considering the changes going on all around him. The inclusion of a set of the last of the piano pieces with two of the fledgling sonatas emphasizes the poetic continuum of this master composer, what Wilhelm Furtwaengler called his “inner necessity”. Declaimed in the eloquent voice of Krystian Zimerman, these are indeed all verses from the same lyric ode.

Reinforcing the cyclical nature of his inspired program, Zimerman began with the later pieces, performing them as if they constituted the opening scene of a bildungsroman, introducing a cinematic flashback to the impetuosities of youth. His chosen style for this entr’acte was unflinchingly declarative, noble and stately. As befits a recollection, there was little or no rubato in evidence, rather this remarkable craftsman dazzled with a metronomically heroic steadiness, a Wordsworthian synthesis of emotion after the distillation of memory is complete. Only in the dies irae of the final intermezzo did the tragic figure rail against the universe, Lear on the heath.

This sensitive bard employed his prodigious technique for an entirely distinct view of passion in the early sonatas. Here the declamations were more heart on sleeve, the actor in this one-man show stepping into the character of the leonine young composer. The attraction of the sonatas is their ferocity and eternal vigor (one still marvels at the memory of the octogenarian Rubinstein performing the f minor) and Mr. Zimerman certainly captured their energy like lightning in a bottle. His reading of that andante espressivo was especially telling: here was the incipient valedictory sound but presented as champing at the bit. Which is the father and which the son?

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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