Jan 28, 2024

The Muse (Piano Music by Brahms)

by Bill Heck

Brahms: Händel Variations & Fugue op. 24; Rhapsodies Op. 79; Intermezzi Op. 117; Clara Schumann: Three Romanzes, Op. 21 (No 1). Challenge Classics CC 72970

Long-time readers may recall that I favorably reviewed an earlier album of Schumann works played by the Georgian pianist Nino Gvetadze (see review here). In the current album, Gvetadze takes on a set of works by Brahms, along with an "epilogue" piece by Clara Schumann.

First – and I am summarizing from the interesting liner notes in what follows – the works presented here are in some sense inspired by two muses: Clara Schumann and Elisabet von Herzogenberg. We don’t have space here to repeat – or even start – the topic of Johannes’s complex relationship with Clara (wife of Brahms champion and friend Robert Schumann and virtuoso pianist in her own right), but there can be little doubt of the depth of his feelings and his respect for her. Brahms presented the Handel Variations to her for her 42nd birthday in 1861; she premiered the work later that year.

In turn, the Rhapsodies were dedicated in 1879 to Elisabet. At the least, he was fond of her; the nature and depth of that fondness is difficult to assess from our distance across time, but we know at least that he corresponded with her for years.

And perhaps both of these women were more indirectly muses later in Brahms’s life. By the time of the Interezzi of Op 117, Brahms wrote of “sorrows”: among other things, Elisabet had died and Brahms was aging, perhaps looking back on “almost” romantic interests that had not come to fruition.

Finally, we return to Clara Schumann. Was Brahms her muse? Her Romances were composed at a difficult time of her life, while her husband Robert was in mental decline just before his attempted suicide and subsequent institutionalization. These are lovely works, if melancholy; Clara was not in the same compositional league as Brahms, but Gvetadze makes a good case for them.

Rather than focus on individual works here, let’s talk about Gvetadze’s playing throughout this album. For one thing, it is marked by more rhythmic freedom than is sometimes given to compositions by Brahms. I admit that, on first hearing, I thought that it was a little too free at a few points, but repeated hearings have changed my mind. Brahms, after all, was a great composer of leider and, despite his break with the hyper-romanticism of Liszt and Wagner, he was perhaps the artist who most successfully joined the classical tradition with romanticism. In this light, I hear Gvetadze’s accents and dynamic shifts as the singing lines that Brahms gave to the piano. (And don’t forget that Brahms’s first instrument was the piano.) Moreover, in the Handel Variations, Gvetadze seems to create a different mood for each variation – by turn introspective, joyous, extroverted, quiet – you get the idea. Certainly, this is not the only legitimate style for Brahmsians, but it does make for lovely and engaging playing. Another characteristic is careful attention to dynamic balances, with seemingly each note judged and allocated its proper emphasis in the whole, and not just between the lines being played by two hands but individual note by note. Here’s just one example that caught my ear: in the final Fugue movement of the Handel Variations, at about 38 seconds, the right hand is repeating a single note, but so subtly that it only dawns on consciousness slowly and to good effect.

Then there’s the pianist’s secret weapon: the recording team from Challenge Classics who capture every nuance of the tones that she produces from her Steinway instrument. The sonic image is relatively close but coherent: no ten-feet-wide keyboards here. Moreover, the full range is present, the lower registers with incredible weight; just listen to the resonances in the solemn low notes at the beginning of the second Rhapsody. (It helps if you have speakers with real dynamic capability.) Gvetadze’s fine control of dynamics, which I mentioned as one of her expressive strengths, comes through unscathed.

Is the sonic presentation such a big deal? Well, I think it is. Compare, for example, Radu Lupu’s playing in the Rhapsodies. There’s no doubt that the playing is awesome (in the full sense of that overused word). But the recorded sound is, by today’s standards, tubby and overly reverberant, detracting from the sheer enjoyment of listening. (I wonder if Lupus’s great Brahms recording might one day be remastered?) That’s a somewhat extreme example, but it’s just easier and downright more fun to listen to the newer recording.

In the end, there are oodles of choices for all of these works, save perhaps the Clara Schumann one; judging as if there is some competition among the better ones seems pointless. (This despite a widespread cultural attitude saying that we must rank order everything and declare a winner!) But Gvetadze’s account joins the ranks of worthy entries that cast light on some wonderful, timeless music.

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 for 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 Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. 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 tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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 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. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

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.

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa