Recapturing an elusive Johannes Brahms


Caught by a paparazzo.

Brahms has been hard to get lately. Habitually played as a security blanket for too many years, it is often a struggle to endure his music. Worshipped and revered, his art is treated oh-so-gently: never taken too fast, never too loud, always within snug barriers. And it is pervasive enough to suggest that he himself was in some ways responsible for this sanctimonious situation, as nearly everyone adoring him pays devoted homage to his music in this way. Something seems quite wrong. He is latched onto in the way denizens in museums and galleries pose before the objects of art as if they were mirrors, feigning to be culturally astute when it is a mere façade. The celebrants suffer for something they cannot really grasp but require it somehow to assuage their self images.

One example among many makes this point: Britain’s distinguished pianist, Dame Myra Hess, ennobled by the King for her valiant raising of public morale by organizing daily concerts in London’s National Gallery during World War II. The spaces were completely emptied out, their masterworks hidden in safety, leaving the barren museum as a painful reminder of war raging outside. Hess recruited musicians to come in each day and play at noon for several years, concerts open to all, paused only during air raid alerts.

We can watch her in action in a wartime film made within the National Gallery. Beethoven gets a good day in her hands (if you can get past her hairdo):

Hess went up to record at the Abbey Road Studios in 1941 and produced an Intermezzo by Brahms, one calming, reassuring, lilting like a lullaby, gently rocking, honeyed melodies trickling down into lower sonic regions.

Hess plays Brahms Intermezzo op. 76, no.3

Readers still awake after hearing this Brahms excerpt may find her Beethoven is positively unleashed by comparison yet this Brahms is barely allowed to get rocking. What would Brahms have wanted? Two eager, brilliant young pianists who knew him and were taken aside for personal coaching leave evidence. Carl Friedberg played an all-Brahms night in Vienna during the 1890s, only to be accosted by a grumpy old bearded gentleman who said it wouldn’t do just to have Brahms for a whole program; one work is good enough and would do the composer a better service. Friedberg was surprised to hear these comments directly from Brahms, who then took him out drinking till dawn and made a date to begin playing and revising all of his music for the young pianist, marking up his scores with second thoughts and clues to decoding his sparse notation, playing for Friedberg nearly every piano piece he wrote but the Paganini Variations: “My hands have too much gout for that.”

Friedberg played the same Intermezzo in New York a decade after Hess’s disc was made. Some unknown angel privately recorded his radio recital: Let’s clock them: Hess takes a full minute, Friedberg soars through it in 24 seconds. The baby is being jostled by a strong syncopated rhythm, unimaginable in Hess, almost jazz-like. But is this mere eccentricity flying in the face of all we hold sacred?



Friedberg plays Intermezzo op. 76, no.3

Etelka Freund was younger than Friedberg and she made it to Brahms, who gave her a lesson after their weekly lunches for nearly a year. All things Hungarian were irresistible to Brahms and he enjoyed fussing over her playing. Freund was stuck in Budapest during World War II and survived, reaching the United States in 1946 and giving some concerts and radio programs. Her son recorded her off the air, and one day on New York’s WNYC she played the Intermezzo, which he allowed out of the keep after years of our meetings to translate his family’s memoirs.

Etelka manages it in 29 seconds. A similar swing is in both of their playing. Hess and her successors seem unaware that this pulse is even present.

Freund plays intermezzo op. 76, no.3

Freund was also close to Bartók. He helped rescue a family treasure: Etelka’s older brother had been given Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto in manuscript. Eager to spirit it out of Budapest when the Nazis came, Freund had Bartók tuck it into his own manuscripts, and before doing so, they detached the title page bearing the composer’s name. He had passed on before she arrived in New York and brought its missing cover. And if you listen to his music, you can detect her playing of Brahms in some details of his own performances; here in the opening of his Suite, a Brahmsian rhythm lies embedded in its DNA:

Bartok Suite played by Bartok

A chain of idea and style in both Friedberg and Freund find a way around the status quo occupying Brahms, their shared shaping implies an authenticity that cannot easily be detected from the notes but rather stemming from their contact with its creator. Unlike the adorers who place art on a pedestal and effectively render it lifeless, these rugged touches are from the nature that inhabited their inspiration and coming into being. There are others involved with Brahms who covey lost messages. More sleuthing produced an upcoming CD project ready in a few months: Explore at your own risk.

13 Responses to “Recapturing an elusive Johannes Brahms”

  1. It’s a bit suspect to assume too much from analyzing tempos taken from such a small sample. After all, Friedberg’s live Brahms BbM Concerto, assumes tempos throughout that are well within the parameters we’ve come to accept over the years. Interestingly, and perhaps buttressing your example, the fastest recorded performance of that massive work is, I believe the first, namely the Rubinstein/Coates. Although Artur Rubinstein did not meet Brahms, he was intimate with the Brahms/Schumann circle, including most notably Joachim.

    • Michael Pearson says:


      Actually he did meet Brahms who patted him on the head when he was a small boy. See the first volume of his biography.

  2. Thanks for your ears. Hess eliminates the syncopation whereas the others make a big point of swinging it. The early Rubinstein may have been fast to fit the music onto 4-minute record sides. Live recordings give a truer picture but little remains from back then. We’ll have fuller excerpts in upcoming blogposts.

  3. The jazz-like sound is amazing. I would never have believed it without hearing it. Look forward to hearing more excerpts.

  4. Irsay says:


    Well, Hess certainly ignores the “grazioso” indication. Etelka plays it beautifully, but might mar the grazioso-semplice intention of Brahms with her Paderewski hand displacement – dangerous when the essence of the rhythm relies on syncopation. Friedberg, I believe, comes closest to what Brahms may have had in mind. In his performance, even with the pedaling, one can hear the staccato left hand, which contributes greatly to the grazioso impression, and highlights the syncopation.

    Having said that… all 3 performances show great beauty and highly developed pianism. Brahms is not around to approve or chide. Each performance stands on its own merits as beautiful music. Would have loved to hear the great pianist Bartok play it!

  5. Irsay says:


    Btw, if the Bartok is a DNA match, why not a prefiguration of same in Chopin a minus Etude op. 25 no. 4!

  6. Irsay says:


    I hate to take up so much space, but…. even with Etelka’s great “ruggedness”, she succeeds in underlining the rhythmic subtext in the left hand, effected through arpeggiations on beats 1, 2 1/2, 3, 4 1/2 (1st, 4th, 5th, 8th eighth notes) of each measure (bum – – bum bum – – bum bum – – bum bum – – etc.) perhaps best of the three versions!

  7. It’s a pleasure to welcome James Irsay to the Blog and his comments. Thanks to you I first heard Ignaz Friedman on your WBAI radio broadcast in 1972 and was abducted into a parallel universe, resulting in a wondrous path opening to follow.

    The left hand’s anticipations were a style in Brahms’ players and notably Clara Schumann’s pupils. They would roll chords not for mere accents but often to liberate and expose inner voices, like the goddess Fanny Davies in Schumann’s Davidsbündlertanze:

    • Irsay says:


      Fantastic playing – authoritative, unhurried and juicy! Yes, in #5 her LH anticipations work nicely.

  8. Irsay says:


    Was listening to Myra’s Beethoven. What a fine performance! Great conception – agogics, dynamics, trills… an inspiring piece of playing, with many crucial, well-thought-out subtleties… imagine how many times she must have performed it … and love that sheitel!

  9. First, I must say that the Freund and Friedberg truly bring out another side of Brahms’ conception, that of a pastiche of sound tapestry that is an interweaving of the syncopated motif that creates an almost musical pointillist expression not unlike what we associate with Debussy’s impressionism. Brahms clearly used rhythmic complexity to ‘free up’ the melody by superimposing accompaniments that did not have typical strict pulses but were more ‘flowing’ and etheric in ways.

    That being said, mining Brahms depth is not for the lighthearted. It is incredibly rich, many layered music that reveals so much more in the hands of those who had contact with the composer.

    The comments by James Irsay are always revelatory, thought provoking and truly worthy of some of the finest musical analysis on the planet. The combination of head, heart and soul in addressing musical thought is rare in these days of musical critique and analysis. Bravo Maestro Irsay!

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