Pianist Matthew Odell opened the 29th Spring Season of the Historical Piano Concerts here with an all-Brahms program, played on the Collection’s J. B. Streicher & Sohn instrument made in Vienna in 1871.
New Hampshire native Juilliard graduate and member of the faculty there, Odell played the works in reverse chronological order, devoting the first half of the program to two sets of short works, all capriccios and intermezzos, beginning with Sieben Fantasien, Op. 116, composed in 1892, the first of the last four sets of such pieces Brahms wrote, all of which are among his most frequently performed and recorded piano works, whose discography includes a performance on this very instrument by Hartt School piano professor Ira Braus (Centaur CRC 2850, © 2007, TT 69:37; available from the Frederick Collection, $15). Odell followed it with Acht Klavierstücke, Op. 76, composed in 1878. The dates tell you that all of these works were composed at the keyboard of his instrument like this one, so its soundscape was in his mind as he wrote them.
All of them are short works, but not character pieces, as are many of those of Robert Schumann, dance rhythm works, like many of Frédéric Chopin’s, or ‘songs without words,’ where the attraction is the soaring melody, like Felix Mendelssohn’s; they are more abstract music. They are grouped within their sets in patterns, such as alternations, pairs, or embracings, but neither set follows a strict overarching one. The patterns might be compared to rhyme schemes in strophes of poems: abab, aabb, abba, baab, for example. So, while they can be, and often are, played individually, and do not need to be played as sets, as works like Schumann’s Carnaval, Op. 9, does, for example, neither are they random collections.
The second half was devoted entirely to the Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5, written 25 years earlier still in 1853. It is in an untraditional five movements, the fourth being an Intermezzo subtitled Rückblick, because it revisits the material of the second movement with transformation and variation, separated from it by a Scherzo. The opening and closing movements are Allegros as is customary. Although Odell had scores, to which he was by no means enslaved, on the ornate music stand for the first half, he played the sonata from memory.
Odell concentrates intently on expression; the impeccable mastery of the technical aspects of the execution simply becomes invisible and the beauty of the music just shines forth, the way it should. In the sonata in particular, his facial expression revealed his own delight in the sound of the music on this instrument. In a conversation afterward, he said that playing in on this instrument makes it clear why some markings are there and what they really mean.
Odell made some comments before each half, mentioning that the Op. 76 set is very infrequently performed, and that Robert Schumann characterized his early piano works as symphonic in concept and shape. That was certainly the case for the Op. 5 Sonata, composed two years after Schumann’s death, and the variety among the registers on this instrument made that far more evident that it would be on a modern one, consequently enhancing the music and increasing the pleasure for the listener. I certainly appreciated it more as a result; Odell’s performance made it sound better and more beautiful to my ears than any other I have ever heard. He divulged that although Brahms is probably his favorite composer, he had never before given an all-Brahms recital. His music is in many ways dense and intense, based on architecture and structure more than on enchanting melody or captivating rhythm, and can be a heavy diet, demanding close attention from the listener and concentrated focus by the performer. Both Odell and the audience delivered in spades what is required.
The J. B. Streicher & Sohn instrument made in Vienna in 1871 is the same model as the one Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) had in his studio, but his was made in 1868 and acquired by him in 1872. It is not possible to know if there were any differences introduced to the model in the intervening years because his was destroyed in bombings in WW II. You can find the details about the instrument, and the company that lasted nearly 140 years, in the opening paragraphs of an earlier review [here] of a recital in which it was used. Next Sunday’s program will feature an 1846 Streicher in a program of Chopin and Schumann.