Ahoy there. It’s been a while! I’ve been busy. It’s a sad fact of life that I have bills to pay, and in spite of the tremendous generosity of some of this podcast’s listeners, a whole year’s worth of donations to In the Hands don’t even cover a month’s rent. So, I’ve been working — which is not entirely a bad thing: it’s a good job, I like the other people, and I’m working on interesting stuff … but it’s just amazing how much time a job takes! Forty hours a week is a lot.
Anyway, having settled in to the new schedule of this job, solved my car woes, completed another successful Keys Please, and done some traveling (I went to Québec and practiced my French!), I’m now turning my attention back to my poor, neglected site. To get things started again, here’s an old recording freshly remastered with the new process.
This is a late Brahms intermezzo. (Regular readers know how much I love that!) As I wrote before, it’s a wonderfully ambiguous piece. I suppose not everybody might think of ambiguity as being a compliment or a desirable thing, but I do. One of music’s magical abilities is to be ambiguous in the way that life is ambiguous, that the moment-to-moment experience of consciousness is ambiguous. We have a very natural desire to understand music, to try to figure out what it “means” and what we’re supposed to think about it. Music, however, doesn’t like to be pigeonholed that way. In real life, we don’t experience emotions one at a time, or in black and white — we usually make sense of them in retrospect, finding names and narratives only as we look back on experience. Music works that way as well, and gives us a way of distilling and becoming comfortable with all the confusingly multiple moment-to-moment ebb and flow of our minds and hearts. It is a way of looking back on our own experience without flattening it the way ordinary words can. It’s often hard to say even whether a piece is basically happy or sad — and that is a wonderful thing if you embrace it.
Certainly embracing it is certainly necessary in this piece. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, or what it’s about, or to name how it feels, but the raw experience of it — if we don’t try to name it — is wonderful.
Next up, I’ll be sharing some excerpts from February’s Keys Please, which will be a fun change of pace for In the Hands. There will even be instruments other than piano; brace yourselves!
This was the first Brahms I ever learned to play. It looked to me like a relatively easy piece, simply because it doesn’t have all that many notes — but I was wrong: never having played Brahms, I didn’t recognize the difficulty that was there. Brahms doesn’t always divide his music into clear layers of melody and accompaniment; he’ll have bits of melodic thread appearing in different voices, different layers. None of these threads is complete in itself, but they form a complete whole that doesn’t emerge from any single place. Much like Renaissance polyphony, the “foreground” of the music emerges from a delicate interplay of layers.
So yes, not many notes, but this piece turned out to require a great deal of care in fingering and voicing, to give just the right weight to each note, and the right shape to the many parts. After I “got it” with this one, I found it much easier to work my way into other Brahms. Playing music requires a certain empathy with the composer; it is much like making friends.
Though it proved a bit tricky to learn, it’s certainly not tricky to listen to: the music is pure bliss, and though it passes through many landscape-changing shades of light and dark, nothing breaks the floating bubble between the first note and the last.
This is perhaps my favorite of the recordings I’ve made for In the Hands — and the remastering really helps. The piece is very low throughout, and the low notes before had a murky, cottony quality. Now they’re rich and clear, and all the subtle little motions in the depths shine through. I only wish you all could hear this without all the MP3 artifacts!
My commentary on the piece itself is in the original posting.
This is the first recording I posted to In the Hands, so it seemed fitting that it be the first to go out in its remastered form.
It’s a piece Brahms wrote late in life, a lullaby. He included a motto at the top from an old Scottish folk song, which in modern English is roughly:
Sleep, my child, now sweetly sleep
It grieves my heart to see you weep.
Brahms is perhaps the most humane composer I know, most especially in these last piano pieces of his. I wrote last week about the embrace between the music and the listener. This music’s embrace is tender and compassionate, and in its arms, we are all children, all loved.
For those listening closely, a fortuitous thunderclap snuck into the opening. I left it in.
At the New Year’s Eve party my family has been attending for the last … oh, at least 20 years, we have a tradition of doing waltzes. By “doing,” I don’t much mean dancing — sadly, only a few brave souls do that — but playing them, since it’s a musical crowd and it’s easy to form a pickup group. (It’s another instance of the sort of informal playing together, not playing for, that I wrote about in Comparing Notes.) Waltzes for the new year are a tradition our hosts imported from Austria, and one I’m now importing from their party to my weblog.
OK, you caught me, I already posted one recording for the new year. So now I’ve posted two!
Waltz Op 39 No 15 (in A flat major)
This isn’t quite as polished and unique as the previous Brahms recording I posted, I’m afraid, but I hope you’ll overlook that and enjoy the piece. It’s a wonderful little masterpiece of sophisticated simplicity.
I’ve been meaning to record this one for a long time.
This is one of those mysterious and introspective pieces like Chopin’s nocturne 15.3 that has a strange logic all its own. It’s low and, even in the crescendos, somehow hushed throughout. There’s not a trace of virtuosic flashiness in it; it’s definitely not a piece that’s about the pianist. The way it unfolds is … well, a nice fellow from Paris named Frank who emailed me about piano recording, and who is also learning to play it, said it well: it’s almost as if the whole piece were a single long phrase. And it ends by dissolving and fading away — a sentence without a period.
I would expect a piece like this to be a late work, from a composer with much wisdom and little to prove to the rest of the world — think, for example, of Beethoven’s Opus 111 or Shostakovich’s late string quartets — but Brahms wrote this when he was 21, or maybe 20. To see inside that young man’s mind…! The mystery deepens!
In spite of the mystery, or really because of it, this is one of my favorite pieces. My interpretation is a little unorthodox, but then so it the music. I hope you enjoy it!
Something sweet today: a bit of magic from Brahms.
These late Brahms pieces — same with the first recording in this weblog — are amazing to me as a composer. They sound lush, but the writing is actually quite spare and elemental. The structures are at once formal and organic, like Bach preludes. And the incredible emotional intimacy, their sense of being so personal, is like no other music I know.
But enough of that — writing about music is…well…you know. (That should not stop you from posting a comment, though!) Enjoy listening.