United States Brahms: “Classical Inclinations in a Romantic Age” Works for Piano and Chamber Music with Piano (Recitals 1 and 2), Ian Hobson (piano), Claude Hobson (piano), Edward A. Rath, Jr. (piano), Benzaquen Hall, DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York, 10.9.2013 and 12.9.2013. (SSM)
Scherzo in E flat minor, Op. 4
Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 23, for piano four hands (Ian Hobson, Claude Hobson)
Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major, Op. 1
Piano Sonata No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 2
Hungarian Dances, Book 1: nos. 1-5
Hungarian Dances, Book 2: nos. 6-10
Hungarian Dances, Books 3-4: nos. 11-21, for piano four hands (Ian Hobson, Edward A. Rath, Jr.)
Musical completists come in various guises. There are the true marathoners who run non-stop to the finish, such as pianist Julian Jacobson who has performed all 32 Beethoven sonatas in about 10 hours (with minimal breaks). The completist Leslie Howard has recorded all of Liszt’s piano works on 99 CDs over a period of 14 years. Other notable completists include Nicholas Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt with their complete Bach cantata series; and Scott Ross and his 555 Scarlatti sonatas. These last two accomplishments were the musical equivalents of running the 4-minute mile: once it was shown that it could be done, others were able to do the same. Then there are those completists who may not commit as much time and effort as the previously mentioned musicians but should get some credit for fulfilling their annual “Brucknerathon” – 15 hours devoted to listening to all 11 Bruckner symphonies.
Of course, when using the word “complete” one is putting oneself in the line of fire. According to one critic, the recording of Scarlatti sonatas by Richard Lester is “the first (and currently the only) truly complete recording of the Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas” with an additional 13 “authenticated” pieces. A complete set is only complete until the next set proves it otherwise.
Ian Hobson has been no slouch in the area of completeness with recitals or recordings of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, Chopin’s piano music, Rachmaninoff piano transcriptions and Schumann’s entire opus for solo piano. His 14-concert Brahms series in New York this autumn, while not the first complete performance of Brahms’s piano music, may be the first nearly-complete piano and chamber music cycle. An earlier Hobson series was, in fact, more “complete” with 16 concerts that included works for 2 pianos not scheduled to be performed in this series.
This said, how can one complain about incompleteness when offered the opportunity to hear this wonderful music, so much of it little known and unlikely to have been heard in recital. It gives the listener a rare chance to re-evaluate a composer whose music has been obscured by the image of a stodgy old man who composed dense, heady and convoluted music, music that pours like treacle. Chopin wrote elegant, haunting music, spun out like gossamer. Schumann’s music, like Brahms’s, was fiery, explosive and at times impenetrable, but much of his output is miniature set pieces, brief excursions into childhood and nature. Then there is Liszt whose music covers every possible form, with a large part consisting of transcriptions of other composers’ works.
Most of us know Brahms’s solo piano music from his later works such as the Rhapsodies or Intermezzos. Hobson played the first and second of Brahms’s 3 sonatas from memory; all 3 were written in 1853 when Brahms was barely 20. While somewhat wild and unwieldy, in Hobson’s hands they were engrossing works whose intensity and seriousness deserved the attention Hobson gave to them. The first sonata could be considered a piano puzzler with its phrases from Brahms’s musical predecessor Beethoven. In addition to Beethoven’s famous 4 notes from the Fifth Symphony, Brahms was clearly taken by the opening chords of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” sonata, so much so that he uses a slightly varied form of it as his main theme. One also sees in these early works that Brahms’s signature methods were stamped into the scores: for instance, the use of motivic kernels that grow into clusters of sound which are as unforgiving and demanding to play as the piano parts in his later piano concerti. Perhaps with age Brahms was able to create movements that could be seen, to paraphrase Ravel, as “nobles et sentimentales,” but here even the slow movements are filled with fire and fury.
It is always difficult to make familiar music sound fresh, and this is even harder when the music has been associated with things pedagogical, trivial or just plain capricious. This was the case with the first 10 dances from Books 1 and 2 of the Hungarian dances. So many of these delightful works have been stripped down for beginning piano students, commercials or as background music to movies or cartoons. Again, Hobson overcame much of the banality associated with these dances by focusing on them as serious works, applying a gravitas that lifted them from their usual campy environment.
The addition of the two hands needed for the 11 dances of Brahms’s Books 3-4 required a different set of skills. Both Hobson, taking the role of the basso, and Edward A. Rath, Jr. as the soprano avoided what seemed at times to come close to digital entanglement. Without the freedom for each to roam freely on the keyboard, these works were more docile and controlled. Several of the more dynamic dances seemed to foreshadow Ragtime music with its jumpy, syncopated rhythms.
Here and there Hobson made minor flubs of no consequence in a series where so much music is being played. He has yet to play in Cary Hall which hopefully will offer a warmer and more welcoming acoustic than Benzaquen Hall.
With so many opportunities to hear music that is unlikely to be performed again soon, New York music lovers should take advantage of this chance to attend what can only be called, to quote from Bach, a “musical offering.”
These musical soirees continue with the rest of the fourteen recitals being presented either at the DiMenna Center’s Benzaquen Hall or Cary Hall, 450 W. 37th Street, New York, on September 24, 26; October 1, 3, 8, 10, 22, 24; November 5, 7, 12, 14.