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Pianist Celebrates a Brahms Renaissance

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Constantine Finehouse (file photo)

Constantine Finehouse’s recital of music from Brahms’s late-in life renaissance in writing for piano made his intimate relationship with the music of Brahms instantly palpable. At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Newburyport on Sunday, for the Ballets Russes Arts Initiative, Finehouse explored pieces created after the composer’s 15-year hiatus from writing for piano.

Brahms had assisted with the publication of the complete works of Robert Schumann and Chopin in 1877, inspiring the eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76 so permeated with Schumans’s quixotic shifts in mood, as well as the aching melancholy and textural fluidity so characteristic of Chopin’s rhetoric. Few have described Piano Pieces, Opp. 118 and 119 more eloquently than Brahms’s friend, the critic Eduard Hanslick, who called them “monologues that he conducts with himself and for himself on lonely evenings, in defiantly pessimistic rebellion, in brooding ruminations, in romantic reminiscences, at times in dream-like wistfulness.” However, with the “relative neutrality” of the title, Brahms seems to have wanted to avoid over-poeticizing and forming associations in his music.

Finehouse began with Acht Klavierstücke, Op. 76 from 1871 – 78. In the first Capriccio, Finehouse’s alternating hands described a wistful cantilena reminiscent of the fourth Ballade op. 10 and artistically expressed the polyrhythmic entanglements. Capriccio II brought out Hungarian-tuned motives and nicely articulated the almost continuous staccato in a mood contrast to the pathos of the predecessor movement. Intermezzo I stands out as a lyrical counterpoint to the preceding burlesque hustle. Expressing the grazioso, with which Brahms continues, he points to a restrained melancholy that permeates the work and leads to a subtle inner tension. In the Schumannesque Intermezzo II, he played a relaxed melodic line that subsequently darkened and gave way to a nervous followed by a melodic passage.

The rondo-like Capriccio III, gave the the pianist occasion to  surprisedwith dramatic features and massive sound substance, anticipating the pathos of Rachmaninoff. A conflict between triplets and duplets forms the main interest in the undulating sixth Intermezzo. Bringing out its sweeping melody in the rapturous middle section rhythmically and harmonically, he anticipated that of the later, second Intermezzo and let the tune sound again — now enriched with arpeggiated chords with intimate and enrapturing harmony. Intermezzo VII begins in a narrative gesture, recalling the somber beginning of the first Ballade from the Op. 10 cycle, while its simple folk-tones reminded one of Chopin’s Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55.

Finehouse closed this collection with a lively, comparatively bright Capriccio with a syncopated theme and ended with harmonic tensions and agogic developments of the coda that appeared surprising.

The first Intermezzo from Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 118, written in 1893 and dedicated to Clara Schumann, found Finehouse nicely articulating the arpeggio and chords to express the Allegro non assai, ma molto appassionato. The second Intermezzo (andante teneramente), probably the most famous of this series, inspired great sensitivity from Finehouse; he sensitively intimated the juxtaposition of melancholic and passionate melodies. In the Ballade he worked out the energetic contrast to the previous piece and made Intermezzo III sparkle. The next Romanze he made weighted, while starting Intermezzo IV tenderly, followed by a mysterious interpretation of the middle part and underlining the slow arpeggios in the dark ending.

The first Intermezzo in Vier Klavierstücke, Op. 119 (1893) starts with slow arpeggios; poly-rhythmic poco agitato characterizes Intermezzo II. In Intermezzo III, Finehouse emphasized the giocoso before providing a dignified ending with the Rhapsodie.

The dense textures and intricate polyphony of Brahms’s language ― especially the brooding mood and darker timbral hues ― fit well into the atmosphere of one of the oldest Episcopalian churches in Massachusetts, originally built in 1710. Finehouse always emphasized line, while playing with admirable accuracy in this gratefully received marathon.

Stephanie Oestreich works in the life science industry and conducted her PhD in the lab of a Nobel Prize winner at Harvard Medical School. She frequently performs as violinist and conducts workshops with orchestras, demonstrating the similarities between teams and leadership in music and management.

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