Pina Napolitano Does Justice to Brahms as ‘the Progressive’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom ‘Brahms the Progressive’: Brahms, Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern: Pina Napolitano (piano). St John’s, Smith Square, London, 25.4.2018. (MB)

Pina Napolitano (c) Nikolaj Lund

Brahms – Six Piano Pieces, op.118; Four Piano Pieces, op.119

Berg – Sonata, op.1

Schoenberg – Six Piano Little Pieces, op.19

Webern – Variations for piano, op.27

It is sometimes difficult now to imagine a time when Schoenberg’s view of ‘Brahms the Progressive’, outlined in his celebrated radio broadcast, was not widely accepted. At least for some of us. I suspect, however, that the typical Brahms listener even now, safely ensconced for a comfortable couple of hours in the Festival Hall or the Musikverein, gives little thought to the implications of Brahms’s music, even continues to hear it as the end of a line. Would that more of those listeners might have had their ears and minds opened by Pina Napolitano’s St John’s, Smith Square recital: for Brahms’s sake, for that of the Second Viennese School, and above all, for their own. For the only disappointment of this lovely evening was how few people had attended. The ‘Schoenberg problem’ remains, to the intense frustration of his devotees.

An announcement was made at the start of the recital to the effect that Napolitano was unwell, suffering from a fever, yet would nevertheless perform. There was no doubt that she was indeed ailing; the occasional lack of energy – for instance, an op.118 no.3 Intermezzo that was some way from ‘Allegro energico’ – should doubtless be ascribed to that. Otherwise, the opening op.118 set of Piano Pieces had much to offer. A temptation to view them too much with hindsight, be it Schoenbergian, Schenkerian, or something else was resisted, motivic and other implications coming to the fore seemingly ‘by themselves’, however much artistry that concealed. A slightly slower than usual basic tempo for the second Intermezzo worked very well. It blossomed, moreover, as inner parts increasingly ‘took over’, harmony and counterpoint proliferating in a fashion one might call Schoenbergian, one might call Bachian, one might even call Mozartian: let us, however, ascribe it to Brahms. There was true subtlety of agitation in the third of the four Intermezzi (no.4), and likewise subtlety of sadness in the final piece. Nothing was overstated: instead, we were made to listen.

Berg’s Piano Sonata, his opus 1, benefited from similar clarity of line. Again, harmony and counterpoint proved inseparable, indissoluble: I had better stop there with my negative descriptions, lest I land myself in Moses und Aron – and/or Adorno. I very much liked Napolitano’s disinclination to turn this into some sort of ‘late Romantic’ farewell. Already, even at this stage of Berg’s career, we instead heard seeds of a Neue Sachlichkeit too little acknowledged in clichés concerning the most ‘Romantic’ of the Viennese Holy Trinity. If Berg is indeed the Son, that need not make us Arians.

Schoenberg’s exquisite op.19 miniatures followed the interval. A great strength of Napolitano’s performance was her ability both to hear and to communicate them as a whole. One utterance provoked another, in true dialectical necessity. By the time we had reached no.6, that magical evocation – in some sense – of the bells at Mahler’s funeral, this was a symphonic finale in itself. Lines might readily have been taken or developed from Brahms; and yet, the timescale is no irrelevance. We felt difference and distance as well as roots. Likewise in Webern’s Variations for Piano, op.27. Napolitano trod a fine line between Brahmsian roots and Boulezian implications. One felt time and time again the future calling – Webern as Boulez’s ‘threshold’ – and the potential for further development of the serial idea. And yet, equally apparent, with more or less equal strength – coexistence or conflict? – the deep rootedness of Webern’s music, at least as much as that of Schoenberg – in that of Brahms.

Returning to Brahms’s op.119 set, the three Intermezzi followed by that final, defiant Rhapsody spoke both of ‘lateness’ and of re-reading, re-listening in the light of what we had heard. Half-lights invited us to adjust our aural eyes: are they quite the same as ears? They invited us in, and yet reminded us of limits. Musical history, like history in general, is a complex dialogue. Direct ‘influence’ – ‘I wrote x because of y’ – is at best of limited interest. That is not how interesting music is written to, performed, or heard. Sometimes we need to go back to the beginning, wherever and whatever that might be; sometimes we should look elsewhere.

As if to acknowledge that, Napolitano offered Webern’s extraordinary little Kinderstück as an encore. This posthumously discovered work, from 1925, both denies and affirms what we ‘know’ about dodecaphony, about Webern, about serialism – chronologically or aesthetically. Napolitano’s loving performance – Webern teasingly marks it ‘Lieblich’ – treated it seriously, yet never starkly. At the close, Webern writes: ‘D.C. ad libitum’. Napolitano took the opportunity to play it one more time at least; the music is transformed in the light of hearing it again and yet anew. I should not have minded another da capo, yet it is always better to leave an audience wanting more. Moreover, there are, or should be, stringent limits when it comes to repetition, as any of these composers would have been the first to tell us.

Mark Berry

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