Brahms: Intermezzi (CD review)

Christophe Sirodeau. Melism MLS-CD-022.

By Bill Heck

Chrisophe Sirodeau is not a truly familiar name among classical music fans, but judging from this album, he should be better known. His recorded output is small, most notably discs of the works of Samuil Feinberg and Viktor Ullmann. (For the curious, I am not familiar with either of these composers, although a few quick listens suggest that further investigation is warranted.) It is perhaps a little surprising that Sirodeau’s first venture into the more often recorded “mainstream” is with the solo piano music of Johannes Brahms, but he has the chops to make the leap.

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.

Indeed, these works seem to me to be distilled Brahms, the essence of Brahms if you will. This is particularly true in all but the Op. 76 works: ornamentation is stripped away; the melodies can be downright simple – although sometimes deceptively so. (By the way, even on first hearing I easily identified, without peeking, several tracks as being from Op. 76: they are a little less distilled, with more notes that, had the pieces been composed later, might not have been there.)  Perhaps there is no better example than the ninth track on this disc, Andante Moderato in E-flat, the first of the three Intermezzi of Op. 117. The opening melody sounds like a child’s song or perhaps a lullaby; the left hand plays but a few simple chords. The development becomes more complex, but the melody is never far away; the piece ends by returning to nearly the same basic simplicity with which it started. At the same time, that melody is a lovely one, tugging at the emotions and sticking in the mind.

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.

BH

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa