By Bill Heck
For those unfamiliar with the term, an “intermezzo” – plural “intermezzi” – was originally a short piece meant to be played between two longer, more substantial pieces. By Brahms’s time, intermezzi could be short, usually expressive pieces without reference to other works. And those unfamiliar with Brahms’s piano works, or those who do not look closely at the liner notes for this album, might suppose that Brahms composed a few sets of piano “intermezzi” and that Sirodeau is simply playing some or all of them in order, just as one might find on a recording of, say, Chopin’s Nocturnes. Not so on several counts: Brahms mixed in a few other forms, e.g., caprices, with the intermezzi in several opus numbers; Sirodeau includes only 14 of the 18 Intermezzi; and the artist has ordered them not chronologically, but in a sequence that he finds most appealing. So, let’s say that this release is rather more like a recital than a comprehensive survey, but a very focused recital.
In any case, most of works here are from a few years late in Brahms’s life: although four of the Intermezzi are part of Op.76 dating from 1878, the remaining 10heard here are from Op. 116 – 119, published in 1892 – 93. (Brahms’s last works were published in 1896, and he died in 1897.) After Op. 76, the days of large-scale orchestral compositions, such as symphonies and concertos, were long past; Brahms’s music had become leaner, more intensely concentrated. Thus, most of the pieces here are the works of a mature composer, giving the sense of a mature human reflecting on life.
Meanwhile, the dominant mood through the entire series of works is reflective, introspective. Gone is the fire and passion of youth. (Try listening to this disk immediately after hearing the First Symphony or the First Piano Concerto; good heavens, what a contrast!) Gone are the complications and dense scoring of the orchestral works. There are frequent passages where the music can be played with two fingers, and many others where, even if more fingers are involved, we hear simple melodies and chords. But lest we forget, it still is Brahms, meaning that the musical intelligence shines through.
Sirodeau’s playing suits the music well, steering a course between literal but soulless readings on one hand and overdramatization on the other. No mawkish sentimentality here, thank you very much, but also no bored disengagement, no mechanical run-throughs. There is rubato aplenty, but not so much as to bring progress completely to a halt, a fault that I too often hear in some solo piano recordings, and one that drives me nuts. Phrasings seem to me always well-judged, and although the music does not lend itself to dynamic extremes, Sirodeau modulates the volume sufficiently to emphasize that which should be highlighted.
I did not locate an album comparable in the sense of being all intermezzi (regardless of order), but these works have been recorded numerous times in different groupings. A complete survey is impossible, but a few comparisons might give a general flavor.
Jonathan Plowwright has recorded a well-regarded series of albums of Brahms music for solo piano. As one example, returning to the Op. 117/1 piece mentioned above, Plowright is a bit quicker, clocking in at 5:02, compared to Sirodeau’s 5:34. Sirodeau lays a bit more emphasis on the lower notes (left hand), and there are slight differences in phrasing, with my overall impression being that Sirodeau is the more wistful, even dreamier in comparison – but hardly a startling difference. In that same work, Radu Lupu takes still longer at 5:46, and in comparison to Sirodeau, his dynamic control is even more noticeable – and incredible. His feather light touch in softer passages seems next to impossible: how can anyone press a piano key that softly and still produce any sound at all? More broadly, Lupu’s recording is a classic, truly expressive, but Sirodeau’s holds its own even so, at least in part because Decca’s 1980’s sound is a bit more congested than Melism’s 21st century version. Really, I can happily listen to any of these albums, reveling in the differences.
Speaking of sound, the Melism recording is indeed is very good. I found it just short of the very best in terms of focus, but that’s largely a quibble, nothing to be worried about at all.
If you are unfamiliar with this music, you surely ought to give Sirodeau’s album a listen. If you already have recordings of these works, you still might want to pick up this one, if only for the experience of hearing a series of well-played versions of most of the intermezzi in an intelligently chosen sequence. A comparison that comes to mind is that of a treasured book; just as one might return to that written work at just the right times, this album is on my list of performances to return to on quiet evenings when I want to hear music that will stay with me.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: