Johannes Brahms Intermezzi Opus 117 Klavierstücke Opus 118 & 119 - Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Variations sérieuses Opus 54 test


Johannes Brahms
Intermezzi Opus 117
Klavierstücke Opus 118 & 119

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
Variations sérieuses Opus 54*

Paul Badura-Skoda
Bösendorfer Impérial Concert Grand 1923
Piano Bösendorfer Impérial*


Felix Mendelssohn - Bartholdy, Variations sérieuses Opus 54

The title is an understatement. These variations are not only "serious", they are tragic : a suffering man lays his soul bare. This is not the happy [latin felix] Mendelssohn we know from other works, but a man who has suffered setbacks and disillusions. Yet he rarely puts his deeper emotions in words, he rather expresses them in music, too eloquent for words as he once stated in a letter. The theme itself bears witness to his state of mind : Its sighs and chromaticisms remind us of Bach’s Weinen, Klagen... (Crying and Lamenting Cantata BWV 12), and it is perhaps not by coincidence that the agitated, tormented final presto quotes a motif (Blute nur, du liebes Herz) from the Saint Matthew Passion, which Mendelssohn had resurrected from its oblivion in 1829, hundred years after its first performance.

This work owes its greatness perhaps from the fact that until then Mendelssohn had avoided the variation form in his piano music. On July 15, 1841 he wrote to his friend Karl Klingemann : "Do you know what I am composing now ? A set of variations for piano, eighteen in one stroke on a theme in D minor : and this gives me divine pleasure… it seems that I have to make up for the fact that I had not written any before."
In its final shape, after many corrections and revisions the work contains only 17 variations. However, the 17th extended variation includes in fact another one with a dramatic "drumroll". The sketches (Deutsche Staatsbibliothek, Berlin) show that this monumental work was conceived, as it were, in reverse gear, backward from the Finale.

One cannot but admire the diversity of moods and the wealth of pianistic invention. As in the case of great variation cycles by other composers, certain variations are conceived as groups of two or three. Thus the first two variations maintain the melody of the theme and lead to a culmination in the third "brahmsian" variation. The fifth and even more so the eleventh evoke the "romantic" idiom of Mendelssohn’s admirer Schumann, while the eighth and ninth form a pair incorporating the idea of the "spinning song" to which Schubert had created an immortal model in his Lied "Gretchen am Spinnrad". Variation nr. 10 is a perfectly shaped fugato while the fourteenth variation, the only one in a major key, evokes the religious atmosphere of finding consolation in prayer. Of particular interest are the highly original thirteenth and fourteenth variations. The latter one which puts the theme as a cantus firmus in the middle part ("tenor") would have given honour to César Franck, while the preceding 13th variation with its percussive repeated chords is indeed a premonition of 20th century composers like Bartók and Prokofiev. The passionate Coda contains some of the most brilliant passages Mendelssohn ever wrote. As mentioned above a Bach motif is quoted nearly literally in the measures 290 to 293.

The genesis of the Variations sérieuses is known : the Viennese publisher Pietro Mechetti asked the most renowned composers of this time to write original piano works as a contribution to a collected edition the net profit of which should help to finance a Beethoven monument in Bonn. Due to Mechetti’s insistence, Mendelssohn who had first refused to cooperate, finally consented to contribute his share. Mendelssohn started his work on June 4, 1841. He gave the first public performance on occasion of his last appearance at the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig on November 27, 1841. He probably choose the byword "sérieuses" in order to distinguish his composition from the superficial "Variations brillantes" of some of his contemporaries. The other contributors to this volume were Chopin, Czerny, Döhler, Henselt, Kalkbrenner, Liszt, Moscheles, Taubert and Thalberg. It is noteworthy that in the title he was printed with his full double name Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Why is his second name dropped today?

Johannes Brahms, Intermezzi Opus 117, Klavierstücke Opus 118, Klavierstücke Opus 119

After receiving the printed edition from the Klavierstücke Opus 118, the famous Bach specialist, Philipp Spitta, wrote to Brahms :
"Your Klavierstücke claim my attention continually. They are the most varied of all your piano pieces, and perhaps the richest in content and depth of meaning among all the instrumental works of yours that I know. Ideally they are to be absorbed slowly in silence and solitude, and they are appropriate not only for meditative afterthought but also for contemplative forethought. I believe that I have understood you correctly when I suggest this is what you meant by the “Intermezzo”. "Interludes” have antecedents and consequences, which, in this case, each player and listener has to supply himself." (22nd December, 1893).

Late autumn - harvest fruits. With these last collections of short piano pieces, Brahms takes leave from pianistic composition, and at the same time attains a pinnacle. His creative energy is undiminished; melodic inspirations flow with such freshness that for a long time it was wrongly assumed that Brahms had drawn on early unpublished compositions for these two sets. These are "songs without words" - elegiac, even melancholic in their basic mood - reminding us sometimes of Schubert’s Impromptus. The apparent touch of improvisation has a counterbalance however, in a thematic development process of highest order, comparable to the last works of Beethoven. Each of these piano pieces evolves from a thematic germ with such masterly logic, that each note, each phrase, seems to be derived from this initial idea, and animated by it. Apparently without effort, the musical structure is interwoven with imitation, canon, inversion, augmentation and diminution, so masterfully, that the listener is hardly aware of this intellectual underlay, except perhaps by sensing that these stark dismal "paintings of an autumnal landscape" have a deeper meaning similar works by other romantic composers. Every note is unmistakably Brahms, with its lush piano sound; notwithstanding the sensual beauty, the music keeps throughout, its own calm, inward reserve.
It was Brahms himself who named his three Intermezzi Opus 117, composed in the summer of 1892, "Three lullabies of my sorrows". The first of them bears, in the form of a motto a verse taken from "Stimmen der Völker" by Herder :

Sleep sweetly, my child,
sleep sweetly and well, so sad am I to see you cry.

Brahms’ publisher wanted to publish it separately in view of the success of the early lullaby "Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht", but Brahms opposed him. A highly structured thematic development and close inner relationship make for a richness of melodic inventiveness worthy of Schubert. Thus the central section in B major of the Intermezzo Opus 117 No. 2, for example, is completely derived from an expansion of the opening theme. To this should be added the characteristic way in which Brahms varies the repeat of an idea in his later works. The harmonic transitions from the central section to the varied reprises of the first section bear witness to his genius.

The first of these six pieces for piano Opus 118, is a pathetic, passionate prelude. The second, in A major, has become a favourite of all pianists. It has the character of an intimate, introverted love song, which could be entitled "the unanswered question". The defiant Ballade in G minor is like a late echo of the G minor Rhapsodie op. 79/2, with the significant difference that the younger Brahms’ affirmative, fortissimo closing chords are missing here. The fourth Intermezzo, a pale and foggy November landscape, is based on canonic imitation in the lower octave. The effect is that of being pursued by a shadow - your own shadow or a ghostly follower - which you can never escape. The title of No. 5, Romanze, hints at a love song ; the beloved one, however, is Death. How gentle is his lullaby, with a Berceuse as middle section which reminds us of Chopin and Schubert. The conclusion of this cycle is one of the most powerful works in piano literature. "Vanity, everything is vanity", from the book Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) seems to be the message of the finely etched main motive, whose four notes G flat, F, G flat, E flat, dominate the whole work. The middle section evokes an apocalyptic vision : night riders approaching irresistibly, bringing war and woe and destruction, until the original exclamation of pain is heard again, a fortissimo outcry, gradually dying away. Despite its deep gloom, this Intermezzo is suffused with such beautiful sound, and constructed with such structural perfection, that the last effect is in no way depressive; rather, it is catharsis; like the peroration of an antique tragedy.

Melancholy is also the dominating mood of the four Klavierstücke Opus 119. The first is based on a most beautiful musical idea : chords built by successive thirds, not in the usual upward movement, but descending, like autumn leaves floating gently to the ground. The same idea, but melodically evolved, and not building harmonies of this kind, had dominated the Andante of Brahms’ early Sonata in F minor op. 5. But what a difference in atmosphere ! Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann, May 1893 : "To play (this Intermezzo) very slowly - is not enough said. Every bar, every note, must sound as in a retardando, as if one would like to imbibe melancholy from each single passage". The most delicate thematic tracery is at work here, with imitation and a constant interweaving of parts, and it is surely no coincidence, that Alban Berg’s piano Sonata op. 1 ends with the same sonority and the same key. It is likewise hardly a coincidence that, at the end of the second Intermezzo, Brahms seems to conjure his late antipode Wagner, as if offering a reconciliation over the grave : this close is nearly identical, in key and atmosphere, with the spell of a summer night as evoked at the end of the second act of Die Meistersinger, "one of the most magical endings in all opera" (Hans Gál : Wagner). The character of the third Intermezzo, in C Major, contrasts completely with the others in these collections : it is a delicate scherzo, light of touch, the cheerfulness of which is tempered only by the fact that the first two pages avoid open dominant-tonic harmonies, in favour of mediant relations. Towards the end thought, the dominant is strongly asserted; the firm pedal point is once again reminiscent of the second act of Meistersinger.

Finally, the Rhapsody in E flat major, a massive summation. In its dimensions and pianistic requirements, this piece is undoubtedly the weightiest in these two cycles and stands as a counterweight in major, to the great minor dirge of Opus 118/6. Cast in rondo form, it is filled with strength and the assertion of life, with a serious march as first, and an enchantingly graceful serenade as second episode. And yet, the work does not ring to a close as one might expect, in triumphant major, but in a sombre yet powerful E flat minor, in no way depressive, but defiant, unbroken and unshakable, in its spirit, like Goethe’s Prometheus.

In the roughly 130 years since the composition of these works, the piano has been developed into an ever more powerful, brilliant instrument, rather at the expense of delicacy and beauty. This recording, though, was made on an 63-year-old Bösendorfer Imperial, considered by many pianists as one of the sweetest and most beautiful-sounding instruments to be found. While it does not attain the sheer fortissimo power of modern grand pianos, it has a wonderful richness of tone, and singing quality throughout its range, and so would seem exceptionally well suited to this type of music.

Paul Badura -Skoda

Paul Badura-Skoda


Originally he wanted to become an engineer but luckily he changed his mind. Nowadays, he is applauded in all the world's great concert halls, from Carnegie Hall in New York to the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna. He makes extensive concert tours on all continents, plays with leading orchestras and can be found in the recording studios of the celebrated record companies. In either words, Paul Badura-Skoda is one of the most important pianists of our time.

One thing has remained with him from his early professional interests, the desire to "look behind the scenes", to understand the functioning and the impact of great musical works and, in playing them, to make the perception accessible to others. In this critical appraisal first editions and autographs are compared, the text deviations investigated and historical instruments are used. Not only does he play music, he also reflects on it, producing numerous cadenzas to Mozart concerti and style-sensitive completions of unfinished works by Mozart and Schubert. The musical personality of Badura-Skoda is characterized by complete immersion in music, a passionate search for the essential and a sense of artistic responsibility, but not in a technical or academical sense. "Paul Badura-Skoda makes us feel something which is rare in a professional musician, that he loves music with every part of his being", a critic once said.

Paul Badura-Skoda was born in Vienna in 1927. His unusual musical talent very soon became to the fore and was appropriately encouraged. Unforgettable concert performances by Edwin Fischer, Hans Knappertsbusch and Wilhelm Furtwängler during the war strengthened Badura-Skoda's intention to become a musician. The young artist was not only impressed by the remarkable interpretations he heard but more so by the evidence of the ethical power of music they provided, an aspect that he still emphasizes today.

In 1945 Badura-Skoda entered the Vienna Conservatory. Only two years later he attracted attention when he won the first prize of the Austrian Music Competition. A scholarship for Edwin Fischer's master classes in Lucerne was the prize, and also the starting point of the maestro's friendship, which laid the foundation for Badura-Skoda's artistic future. A few years later the young pianist became Fischer's assistant, and after Fischer's death, he continued the tradition of his master classes in Vienna, Salzburg, Edinburgh and Siena. Even today, Badura-Skoda still keeps close contact with young artists. Again and again he devotes precious time and enthusiasm to the strenuous office of jury member in important piano contests and advises young artists. No-one who has heard him speak about music with warmth and perception in his soft Viennese voice, can ever forget it.

In 1949 Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan became aware of Badura-Skoda's outstanding talent. They invited him to play concerts, and practically overnight the young Viennese pianist became a world-famous artist. He made a spectacular debut at the Salzburg Festival; and at his first concert in New York, in 1953, the hall was quickly sold out, something that hardly anyone before him had experienced. This sensational success was repeated a few years later at his debut in Tokyo. Record companies were not far behind, for years he was the pianist who had the largest number of long-playing records on the market.

Since then, Badura-Skoda has become a regular and celebrated guest at the most important music festivals. The conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler, Joseph Krips, Karl Böhm, Hans Knappertsbusch, Hermann Scherchen, Artur Rodzinsky, Lorin Maazel, Georg Szell, Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Georg Solti and the violinist David Oistrakh have been among his famous partners. He has recorded a vast repertoire, more than two hundred long-playing records and dozens of compact discs appeared, including complete cycles of the piano sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

But Badura-Skoda does not limit himself to play the works of the classical Viennese composers, his repertory ranges from baroque to modern music. Indeed, Badura-Skoda does not agree with narrow specialization. He conducts, composes, works in musicological areas, writes books on music and collects. Besides a huge archive of autograph microfilm copies and first editions, he is the proud owner of an extensive collection of historical keyboard instruments. It is a unique experience to be shown around this treasury by the owner himself.

1976 the Austrian State honoured Paul Badura-Skoda by the "Österreichische Ehrenkreuz für Wissenschaft und Kunst", 1978 Badura-Skoda received the "Bösendorfer-Ring" which was given only to Wilhelm Backhaus before, 1988 he received the Gold Medal of the City of Vienna, 1993 the artist was nominated "Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur" and 1997 "Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres". At the occasion of his 80th birthday Paul Badura-Skoda was honoured by the Austrian Government receiving the Große Silberne Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um die Republik Österreich and by the City of Vienna he received the Goldene Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um das Land Wien. The University of Mannheim in Germany honoured him by the title Doctor Honoris Causa.

Bösendorfer Impérial Concert Grand


It is a nice coincidence that my first acquaintance with this outstanding concert grand took place in a flat at Bösendorferstraße 9, in Vienna. Hermann May, an engineer, had a private recording studio in his flat where I recorded some works to offer them as a Christmas gift to my mother. I was 14 years and I had never played on a concert grand before. The recording came out amazingly well. Hermann May, who had first looked at me quite sceptically, was very pleased with my playing. Soon after that I made more recordings and with the years we became friends, a friendship which lasted until his death. Hermann May was one of the first producers who made live recordings of concerts and opera performances with the poor means of that time. After the war he modernized his equipment and established a sound archive which soon became world famous. Many great musicians came to him such as Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hans Knappertsbusch, Wilhelm Backhaus and Friedrich Gulda.

Only years after that first meeting, when I had already played in several continents, I became aware that the instrument was one of the most beautiful pianos of our time. I tried to buy it from him for my collection of pianos, but to no avail. Though Hermann lived in quite modest conditions, he did not want to give the instrument away during his lifetime. However, by a clause in his testament I was given the possibility to acquire this piano after his death.

It is one of the earliest Imperial concert grand with eight octaves, from bottom C to C5 and has the production number 23 274. Investigations at the Bösendorfer archive revealed that it had been completed in 1923 and sold for 5 Million Crowns. From the still existing attached sheet one can deduct that the work for this grand had already started in 1916. The assembling was carried out in 1918, the finishing in 1922 and the final control in November 1923. A particular specification  determined that the bass strings Röslana strings, should be coated with iron wire. This might be a reason for the exceptionally sonorous, warm bass sound of this instrument. A moving remark can be found on the still existing order form : "Please carry out the finishing with utmost care".

I don't think that it would be possible nowadays to build an instrument with similar care and in a production process of seven years. One is reminded of the individual way the great violins in Cremona were handmade. As with violins the actual production had been preceded by yearlong process of drying carefully selected spruce for the soundboard. Of particular merit are the sensitive action and the quality of the feltcovered hammers. That felt, prepared by hand, is somewhat softer and more elastic than of that modern hammers. As a result these hammers produce less volume but more singing quality than the modern ones. Needless to say this delicate production of sound is not apt for every style of music. Yet it is ideally suited for the demi-teintes of Debussy's music and the works of some of his contemporaries as the late Brahms, Fauré, Ravel, Granados, Albeniz, Scriabine. Not loudness but beauty of sound was the ideal of composers and piano makers alike.


Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

Variations sérieuses Opus 54*

Johannes Brahms

Intermezzi Opus 117
Intermezzo in Es-Dur/E flat Major/en Mi bémol majeur
Andante moderato
Intermezzo in B-moll/B flat minor/en Si bémol mineur
Andante non troppo e con molta expressione
Intermezzo in Cis-moll/C sharp minor/en Ut dièse mineur
Andante con moto

Klavierstücke Opus 118
Intermezzo in A-moll/A minor/en La mineur
Allegro non assai, ma molto appassionato
Intermezzo in A-Dur/A Major/en La majeur
Andante teneramente
Ballade in G-moll/G minor/en Sol mineur
Allegro energico
Intermezzo in F-moll/F minor/en Fa mineur
Allegretto un poco agitato
Romanze in F-Dur/F Major/en Fa majeur
Intermezzo in Es-moll/E flat minor/en Mi bémol mineur
Andante, largo e mesto

Klavierstücke Opus 119
Intermezzo in H-moll/B minor/en Si mineur
Intermezzo in E-moll/E minor/en Mi mineur
Andantino un poco agitato
Intermezzo in C-Dur/C Major/en Ut majeur
Grazioso e giocoso
Rhapsodie in Es-Dur/E flat Major/en Mi bémol majeur
Allegro risoluto


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