Pianist Andrew Rangell chose a most unusual all-Brahms program for his concert at Rockport Chamber Music Festival on Thursday. I adore Brahms, and had never heard Rangell before, so I made the long trek to Rockport with great anticipation.
Rangell is not one’s typical performer. I found him sitting on a public staircase a few minutes before the concert, poring over his music, and not yet, I thought, dressed for the performance. When, moments later, he arrived on stage in the same outfit and began playing from the score, he did not seem at all relaxed. He seemed to be muttering to himself almost all the time, à la Glenn Gould. But he sounded as original as he looked.
He opened with five rarities. Op. 116, No. 5 in E Minor; Op. 119 in E Minor (1893); and Op. 76 in B-flat Major (1876) are not among Brahms’s most popular intermezzi, so it was really lovely to hear them live. (He has recorded Op. 119 on his CD “Recital of Intimate Works” which one can hear in a very handsome and relaxed manner on You Tube here.) It was clear from the first intermezzo that nothing was going to be predictable. Rangell’s tempi and rubati took some getting used to, especially in the intermezzi I knew so well.
“Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen,” Op. 122, No. 8 in F Major (1896) is certainly unusual on piano recitals, and Rangell played it very nicely, indeed. The excellent Rockport handout explains how in his early 20s, Brahms composed three short works for organ, not included in his official catalog. Forty years later, ill and at the end of his life, he composed a set of eleven Choral Preludes on the model of J. S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. At the behest of Brahms’s publisher, N. Simrock, Busoni transcribed six of the Choral Preludes for piano. Being Busoni, he embellished quite a bit, even changing the key of “Es ist in Ros’ entsprungen.” (Rangell played it in the orginal). A lovely discovery.
Walter Steinkauler’s interesting solo piano version of the third movement from the Brahms’s Viola Quintet in G Minor, Op. 111, the second of two string quintets Brahms wrote for string quartet with a second viola, made for another provocative transcription.
For the 34 minutes before intermission, stellar colleagues violinist Robyn Bollinger and cellist Raphael Popper-Keizer joined for a very well-played, Brahms’s Piano Trio in A Major, Op. Posth. Though it has been in print for 70 years, controversy remains as to its authorship. The booklet essay told us:
Many musicians have accepted the A-major Piano Trio, Op. Post., as one of Brahms’s own, performing and recording it alongside chamber music indisputably by Johannes Brahms. In 1996 the Beaux Arts Trio recorded it together with the composer’s piano quartets…. The manuscript lacked a title page, and it was covered by a plain paper upon which someone had written a large question mark. Corrections in a second unknown copyist’s handwriting also appeared in the score.
The mystery continues, involving two German musicologists and nagging speculations that it was, in fact, “the work of an unknown composer” when performed at a first-ever 1925 performance at the Rhenish Chamber Music Festival. It was declared a posthumous work by Brahms in 1938. The program notes conclude that
Despite extensive research and theorizing, the mysteries of the manuscript’s provenance and the composition’s author remain unsolved. Those who believe in the Trio’s authenticity rely heavily on stylistic treats that are consonant with the young Brahms’s compositions, particularly the Piano Trio in B major, op. 8…. Brahms habitually destroyed compositions that did not meet his exacting standards… It may have been the work of a young and highly skilled composer who had not as yet found a publisher. It may have been the work of someone in Brahms’s circle,a composer who knew his style so well that they could create such a successful imitation.
Even after the trio’s excellent performance, I remain unconvinced this was by Brahms.
In Brahms’s beloved Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Op. 34 (1862-1864), violinist Sarita Kwok and violist Jessica Bodner joined in to form a quartet of first-rate Boston-based strings. (Cellist Raphael Popper-Keizer, who just added A Far Cry to his lengthy resumé, gave his many solos with beauty and distinction). The women all wore long gowns, Popper-Keizer wore a white shirt and black concert vest. Rangell remained informal.
A brilliant pianist, Brahms composed 24 large-scale chamber music pieces, 17 of which include piano with other instruments. The four-movement Piano Quintet (1862-1864) is another of Brahms’s works with a complicated back story. It metamorphosed, after a long gestation period, from a string quintet with two cellos, to a sonata for two pianos (still available as a duo-piano score as Op. 34B) which Brahms performed publicly in Vienna with pianist Carl Tausig in 1864. Then, a few months later, he recomposed it as a piano quintet, which was premiered in 1866, in Leipzig. Though the ensemble’s third movement worked particularly well, Rangell’s overly percussive left hand sometimes suggested Shostakovich more than Brahms. The strings sometimes seemed to be struggling to keep up. While Rangell’s interpretations might not be to everyone’s taste, they bespoke a serious intelligence at work.