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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
14 Intermezzi [Op 76 complete and selected from Op 116-119]
Christophe Sirodeau (piano)
rec. 2019, Eglise ╔vangelique Saint-Marcel, Paris, France
MELISM MLS-CD-022 [62:39]

The title of this CD provokes the question ‘How many intermezzi did Brahms compose?’ There’s only one Brahms’ opus number with ‘intermezzi’ in its collected title, the 3 Intermezzi, Op 117. So, you might be surprised that French composer and pianist Christophe Sirodeau can select fourteen to create a CD. But the correct answer to my opening question is twenty. The reason is that Brahms hid intermezzi, not all selected here, among all those opus numbers I give in the list of contents at the end of this review in order of appearance on this CD, and then you have to add the Op 10 Ballades, No 3, and the fourth movement (RŘckblick) of Piano Sonata No 3, Op 5. That word, RŘckblick, retrospect, sums up the feel of many intermezzi. On CD they usually appear either within these opus number clusters, or as freestanding items within recitals. In his booklet note Sirodeau argues that a published order does not imply and should not dictate performance order. I agree, yet interestingly he sits on the fence too as he does play the 3 Intermezzi, Op 117 in published order. Does this make the sum of these greater than its individual parts? I’ll tell you what I think later. Sirodeau doesn’t tell us why he chose the order he did, save to “let the dream run of a secret path among these wonders.” I prefer my translation of the French to that in the booklet because the sense of secrecy does resonate with the intermezzi as well as explain this CD’s centre gatefold of a path bordered by ancient trees like the ancient speaking ones Tolkien calls Ents. A memorable earlier example of Brahms’ intermezzi selected across opus number clusters is Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s 10 Intermezzi recorded in 1960 (Sony 88697147602). In the booklet note Sirodeau doesn’t mention any awareness of this when he was studying Brahms at the piano in 1983, but that this was when he encountered the American pianist “Julius Katchen’s legendary complete recording of Brahms’ piano works” (Decca 4552472), of which the intermezzi were recorded in 1962. So, in my review I select 7 of Sirodeau’s 14 intermezzi and compare his interpretations with those of Gould and Katchen.

Op 119, No 1, Intermezzo in B minor finds Sirodeau beginning as almost a thirteenth year-old, hence this starting point on the CD, with late Brahms. It’s a somewhat atypical intermezzo in its melodic sparseness and structural compression. The Adagio opening is attractive musing in chains of descending arpeggios, like lying down watching the clouds roll by. Sirodeau watches keenly, seeming to toy with the sensation at first and then be careful to observe a gradual increase in harmonic detail and fringe disturbance. A second section, in D major, of rising figures (tr. 1, 1:01) enters almost imperceptibly yet warmly, with the kick of a dotted-quaver/semiquaver and syncopated rhythm for the first time, fragments of a waltz and a climax of passion. Again, the harmonic detail and interplay of the hands clear from Sirodeau, who can then relax only to revisit the sensations with a more appreciative climax before a delicate transition to the now more complexly arrayed descending figures of the opening (2:20). The coda (3:10) recalls the warmth of the second section opening. The closing chord with a poised pause from Sirodeau seems a release which can still probe forward. A fascinating piece, fastidiously pointed by Sirodeau.

I compare Gould who amazingly plays this intermezzo at very close to Andante, taking 2:21 in comparison with Sirodeau’s 3:58. The opening section from Sirodeau, taking 60 seconds, has a sense of exploration; Gould, taking 28 seconds, seems intrigued by the intricacy of a peal of bells and you’re conscious of a wealth of detail, difficult to savour in the way that Sirodeau can. In the second section, Gould, taking 50 seconds, gains in a display of a rapid onset of, then rekindling of passion, though there isn’t time for warmth; Sirodeau’s 78 seconds gives a little time for this, also dance lilt, a hint of a fixation of passion and some glowing inner part detail between and after the two climaxes. At the return of the opening section, Sirodeau’s 50 seconds allows us more time to pick out and appreciate the intricacies of added detail than Gould’s 31 seconds, though that does convey a sense of flourishing abundance. But in Gould’s coda of 30 seconds, you barely notice the significant rests as the waltz winds down that Sirodeau’s 48 seconds reveals.

Op 116, No 4, Intermezzo in E major is, for me, an Adagio dialogue between a saturnine man and sanguine lady or, if you prefer, a melancholic disposition and a cheerful one. The male and female identification is because the melancholy begins the piece as a rising motif in the left hand which, today, might be termed ‘bluesy’, answered by a dolce, soothingly falling, descending right hand. The lady has the most to say, trying to maintain E major, while the man faithfully keeps returning to his motif which wants to bring in C-sharp minor. The lady’s expansiveness is a quietly yet deeply felt arioso. Come the central section (tr. 3, 2:26), the right-hand floating ben legato, she provides a rhapsodic focus on the best of times. The opening section returns (3:20) with a jam-packed chordal version of the left-hand proposal with an extension and basso profundo descent to bottom C sharp (that’s 5 ledger lines below the bass stave): think of the solemn trombone, chorale like, passages in Brahms’ symphonies. This stimulates a free-flowing response of greater expressiveness in the right hand, enabling a return, for coda, to the peaceful, rhapsodic manner of the central section and a parade of juicy arpeggios, most of all for the closing chord with pause, moving from mid bass E to coloratura E, then a solo E, paused, 4 ledger lines below the bass stave, to show E major finally wins. This alluring, distinctive piece is performed by Sirodeau with notably clear focus and poise. His tempo is, in the main, convincing, though I wonder are the lady’s flights of fancy a mite too ebullient? Maybe they need be.

I compare Katchen who, timing this intermezzo at 4:19 to Sirodeau’s 4:55, makes a case for a little faster tempo, towards Adagietto. Sirodeau’s approach is that of a dramatization, a scena to observe, a contest. Katchen is altogether more intimately domestic, so you feel you’re both eavesdropping and privileged to witness a fundamentally contented partnership. Katchen’s man is smooth and suave in ascents, the lady more pointed, placing her descents and they support one another as a couple in mutual relaxation, of which a key ingredient is Katchen’s lovely smoothness of tone. The lady’s first long, expressive arioso is one of hugely appreciative languor. The louder passages seem fleeting interludes before enjoying the softness thereafter. Katchen’s central section is less ecstatic than Sirodeau’s but has a balmy, dreamy quality. The jam-packed chords make a mysterious contrast, the low C sharp quite chilling, but the lady has her own passionate response before she’s able to softly discount the male motif, the moment when the male relents (3:53 in Sirodeau) and the couple reaches accord. In Sirodeau’s account this is a key moment of yielding, whereas in Katchen it’s an unpretentious sign of ever mutual respect.

Op 76, No 3, Intermezzo in A-flat major is, at first listen, the most un-Brahmsian intermezzo: a candy like, chintzy parade of arpeggios of a dance, as if Brahms is responding to Tchaikovsky’s Sugar plum fairy, though it would be very prophetic of him as she didn’t arrive till 13 years later. But listen again. It’s marked Grazioso and Anmutig, ausdrucksvoll, the German addition denoting it’s expressive as well as graceful and, as it turns out and Sirodeau reveals, more serious and loving. It starts very bright and airy because both hands play in the treble clef, the right with the tune in the sparkling heavens, usually starting high and gliding down, the left with a motif leaping in quavers, two up, two down. Shared between them, so that they never coincide, are two-note arpeggios in the left hand and three-note ones in the right. Why all this intricacy? Well, Sirodeau’s playing made me think, here are two dancers, with the lady given the limelight but the man solicitously supporting her. You’re aware of the equipoise between the pianist’s two hands being that of the relationship. The opening section ends with a suddenly softer, slower and lower wind-down (tr.7, 0:39), as if the lady is sinking to the ground, cradled by the man. The second section (0:44) is brief: a dolce response of mutual affection, soon climaxing but stating all that’s needed. The opening section return sees the lady scaling even greater heights. The second section return finds the triplets now in lower tessitura and thereby a telling conveyor of affection. It ends with both hands in the bass clef, getting softer and slower, a nostalgic, loving savouring, until the final A-flat major chord brings both hands back to the treble clef to confirm the sun still lies within the repose. Sirodeau gets not only the detail but also the delicacy of it across. Go to him for this and a feel for two companions.

I compare Katchen (Gould didn’t record this intermezzo). Timing at 2:18 to Sirodeau’s 2:44, Katchen is quite a bit faster for this piece without tempo indication, yet you don’t feel that, but rather beautiful miniaturist detail and, by being faster, Katchen can make more of the ritardando at the end of the opening section and its reprise. Katchen makes the basis of p and pp markings more noticeable than Sirodeau, so the whole scene seems as if at a fantasy distance with the arpeggios creamy and luscious. Katchen’s second section doesn’t have Sirodeau’s warmth, which comes from his focus on its harmony. Instead, Katchen concentrates on the variety of the momentum of the piece’s new feature of triplets in quavers. These run into a minim, then a crotchet or dotted crotchet, so there’s a sense of running, then floating and, as a result from Katchen, an assured way of allowing a climax to appear and disappear. The first section reprise now has a touch more presence, while that momentum found in the second section’s triplets remains a prime mover in its reprise, only to be offset by the lovely calm of the final chord. Go to Katchen for carefree progress and absolute repose at the end.

Now I’ve reached the sequence of the 3 intermezzi. Op 117, No 1 in E-flat major is a lullaby, Brahms being unusually specific by quoting in Herder’s Folk Songs German version the opening lines from the Scottish ballad, Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament: ‘Baloo, my boy, lie still and sleep/It grieves me sore to hear thee weep.’ Marked Andante moderato and dolce, it doesn’t at first sound like a lament. Sirodeau presents it smoothly with the total stability of its ‘soprano’ register reiterated E-flats in the right hand and top Gs peeping out, maybe like the baby boy, serenely. A gradual slowing of tempo as the minor mode creeps in (tr. 9, 1:23) towards the end of this opening section, then a big slow down to the Pi¨ Adagio central section in E flat minor (1:55), pp ma sempre ma molto espressivo, a tall order which finds Sirodeau offering a rather halting, laboured right hand against left-hand rippling rising arpeggios. This seems as if the mother’s disquiet is working against the rocking of the cradle. With the return of the opening section and E flat major, Un poco pi¨ Andante (3:41), calm is restored but not wholly. The added running semiquavers in the right hand mixed with the melody give more urgency, perhaps even desperation, to its statement. Only at the repeat do we return to the dolce opening mood, but is Sirodeau’s rinforzando and espress at the coda (5:02) just a little too deliberate and thereby sounding more contrived than spontaneous? However, I like Sirodeau’s opening which is intent, very clear, not too moderato which secures a serene flow and makes the gradual, then fast, slowing down more sinister. His central section has an almost sobbing hesitance, while his marked picking up speed in the closing section is reassuring, but also suggests an insistent hope and thereby the lullaby seems to become the mother’s prayer and the espressivo coda a closing appeal at the end of it.

How far does Gould’s interpretation differ? His opening is slower, with a stately quality in its stability: the serenity comes from the piano tone and glowing substantiality, though I wouldn’t term it particularly p or dolce. The stateliness jettisons mother and baby intimacy: it’s as if this mother is dutifully rocking, but more fixated on the moving parts of the cradle. Because Gould’s opening tempo is slow, the slowing down towards the end of the first section is less noticeable than with Sirodeau, but Gould makes the harmonic changes startling because of his characteristic vertical (harmonic) clarity as well as horizontal (melodic) clarity. Gould’s central section flows more than Sirodeau’s and his expressiveness is of breadth and a seemingly irrevocable sadness. Gould’s return of the opening is like trying to put a brave face on things, but with only a fašade of serenity. Yet the magic of this account is that you witness calmness restored. At the coda he makes a very slight pause before the espressivo and barely a rinforzando, but this sounds fitting.

Now, how about Katchen? What’s notable is how quietly and dolce he begins, a mother caring most about the baby: you feel you could touch the stillness and the flow is natural. The crescendos and diminuendos when they come are sensitively realized. The slowing down towards the end of the opening section is less observed, but Katchen’s tempo seems so right it doesn’t matter, as the icy infusion the melody gets is immediately apparent. In the central section Katchen’s attention to the pp makes the left-hand arpeggios listless, amorphous, stripped of purpose beneath a desolate right-hand melody, yet there’s also appreciable beauty found in its sorrow, which seems to explain the immediate transformation to serenity, all in the gentleness of Katchen’s touch, from the beginning of the closing section. Then gathering a little pace is like a gush of gratitude in the running semiquavers. The coda, after the slightest of pauses and a mercurial arpeggio, the rinforzando and espressivo no more than a fleeting nod to usher in a tranquil close. Katchen’s poise is breathtaking.

Op 117, No 2, Intermezzo in B-flat minor is marked Andante non troppo e con molto espressione. As is usual, there’s no explicit programme, so you can make your own: these intermezzi invite such speculation. This one’s opening theme reminds me of that of Brahms’ Symphony No 4 owing to its expansiveness yet pervasive disquiet. But here there’s more of nostalgia, reaching out to some recalled happier times in a dolce relationship of dovetailed demisemiquaver clusters amid which the melody is delicately revealed in the right hand while the left offers selective echoed support. Sirodeau presents this lucidly. A brief slowing down, then a resolution (tr. 8, 1:12), a central section, more like a second theme, but this one is a loving response to the first, now suddenly a parade of ecstatic arpeggiated chords not present before. Then the melody goes into low ‘soprano’ register with notable ‘mezzo and tenor’ support legato espressivo e sostenuto (1:28) where for me Sirodeau is a bit studied where he might be more indulgent. This resolution is repeated with the ‘mezzo/tenor’ element coming to a loud climax. The closing section (2:18) Sirodeau begins more alarmed than the first, dolce marking notwithstanding, so it appears clearly as a development section, a crisis. After a momentary silence (2:56), an attempt to regroup into a recapitulation, but the opening theme’s anxiety has now become the central focus rather than just an element in a smooth flow and there’s an effectively stabbing rinforzando at its climax (3:55). The coda brings the return of the resolution, this time needing a Pi¨ Adagio to try to control the situation (4:07). A dolce descent is answered by another rinforzando stab and even the resolution now comes with an ineluctable E natural to F tail in the bass, soon much repeated, from Sirodeau like a continuous protest by this piece’s protagonist. This brushes aside the right-hand melody’s legato espressivo attempt at warmth. The pleading of a former loved one is rejected and the end is tragic.

Gould brings a mellow disquiet to the opening theme through a seamlessly smooth relationship between the hands. His loving response is more measured and emotive than Sirodeau’s and thereby with a substantial warmth, while Gould’s greater bringing out of the mezzo/tenor elements adds to this, his climax at the repeat less loud but with a more inward quality. Gould’s development is stark, his recapitulation has sadness and poignancy, the fracture lines in the relationship plainly revealed. There’s a deadening manner in Gould’s Pi¨ Adagio resolution with emphasis as much on the chromatic descents as the E natural to F rises, like a funeral procession with an admittedly indulgent basso profundo B-flat before its arpeggiated rise through four octaves to close as if a death rattle.

Katchen brings notable clarity to the etching out of the opening right-hand melody, eloquently sad yet facing disquiet head-on, over a left-hand cushion. For him mellowness is left to the resolution, which is where for the first time the right hand is comforting and the mezzo/tenor elements are now marked but also comforting and I think his balance in their repeat between loudness and warmth is ideal. Katchen’s development is a little faster, a crisis more easily grasped through its effect than its occurrence, that effect being the broken sorrow but also urgency of his recapitulation, realizing more pace is helpful here to point the capitulation that the exhausted Pi¨ Adagio represents. Katchen etches clearly the relationship between the falling right hand and the E natural/Fs rising in the left hand. The low B flat is evident without being indulged, but the rise to and then sensitive long pause on the high B flat seems to take the spirit of the former loved one into infinity.

Op 117, No 3, Intermezzo in C-sharp minor is easily explained: its outer sections parade a dignified lament; its central section unwraps the anguish beneath the dignity. The opening is marked Andante con moto and molto p e sotto voce sempre. Sirodeau reveals the con moto well, aiding the pressing, dark and brooding manner of the lament, but the hushed, secretive quality that a sotto voce should bring isn’t found, as Sirodeau prefers a more muscular manner. A legato second phase (tr. 9, 0:22) is a touch smoother, but not altogether legato, which it ought to be because the left hand doubles the right two octaves lower. However, the repeat with the right hand adding an octave higher is powerful and gains still more power when the opening melody returns in the ‘mezzo’ register with a plain ‘soprano’ overlay (0:57). The second phase return, marked pp (1:09) is softer before a Poco pi¨ lento coda rhetorically casts the lament as a final statement. In the central section, Pi¨ moto ed espressivo and dolce ma espressivo (2:03), the fašade of control vanishes. In the key of A major we get a sudden tenderness and then a leap of pain to ‘coloratura’ top B and top C sharp in the next phrase, amid continually disturbed movement. The repetitions are like Sisyphus for ever rolling his boulder up the hill for it to roll back down. On the return of the determined fašade of dignity you glimpse chinks of oppressing sorrow, even with, or because, the coda is expanded to produce a somewhat angry finality.

Gould also brings intensity to the con moto manner of the opening lament, more convivially than Sirodeau and also without real sotto voce, but Gould’s second phase legato is observed and calmer and smoother for this, while his creamier repeat with the higher octave is sadder. Gould’s melody in the ‘mezzo’ register has a grim firmness while his ‘soprano’ overlay has a part pitying, part sobbing character. The pp second phase return is slightly softer and you feel a pressing, remorseless sorrow before Gould’s calmer, more reflective coda. Gould’s central section is a more markedly different mood than Sirodeau’s. For Gould this is nightmare and panic, though with more discernible order than Sirodeau’s more drifting manner, Gould having the certainty of alarm. In Gould’s returning opening the ‘mezzo’ melody climaxes gloomily only to sink back into softer acceptance and then a calmer coda, albeit one of fatalistic, resigned sorrow.

Katchen gives us a true sotto voce: what a difference in effect, a cloaked, furtive lament, and, combined with the pace, ashamed. I then thought of this as another lullaby, one for a baby who died early. Katchen’s second phase legato lies half way between Gould’s smoothness and Sirodeau’s rigour, his repeat with the higher octave penetrating with an element of protest. Katchen’s ‘mezzo’ register return of the theme is no more than dutiful, the ‘soprano’ overlay smooth but like the rest emotionally uninvolved even in the climaxes. But that pp second phase return is felt: a sad shadow entering, sabotaging the attempt to keep everything orderly. So, the coda is a well full of tragedy to complete the progression. Katchen’s central section isn’t driven, like Sirodeau’s and Gould’s, by the prevailing turbulence but by sustaining the melodic line. So, the dolce asked for does come through and the sense of a memorial of order and nostalgia. The transitional passage between the central section and reprise of the opening then becomes more than a trickling relaxation, rather a means of banishing the nostalgia. For Katchen’s ‘mezzo’ theme is now firm, the return of the original pp second phase now sepulchral, the coda a finalization with resolve, a sanguine state midway between Sirodeau’s angry finality and Gould’s resigned sorrow. At the beginning of this review, I promised to report on my experience of hearing these three Op 117 Intermezzi together. I found that, yes, I did feel the sum of them greater than that of free-standing pieces and, without looking for specific correspondences between the settings, found myself linking lullaby (No. 1) and lament (No. 3).

Op 118, No 2 in A major is the intermezzo which closes Sirodeau’s recital in which, as his companion booklet writer Zassimova writes, he reaches “the sunlight and wise acceptance of human frailty”, though I offer “being human” as a less dramatic translation of ”l’existence humaine”, the original French. I suggest this is the most gloriously positive of Brahms’ intermezzi and therefore an excellent choice for bowing out, which is what Brahms does here in gratitude, suffused with only occasional regret. The marking Andante teneramente says it all and Sirodeau treats it relaxedly. In the opening theme melody, Sirodeau’s detailing of the inner parts is steady and assured, as passion simmers and climaxes, after which it sinks down, espressivo (tr. 14, 1:40) into low tessitura and with something of regret in its softer repeat of phrase, but soon recovers, dolce (1:59), with the opening three notes twice repeat like a spurring mantra. The second section (2:55) brings a period of disquiet in F sharp minor in Sirodeau’s beautifully sad wandering and wondering, but this is followed by a beatifically consoling parade of chords in F sharp major, pi¨ lento. The F sharp minor material now returns more passionately, yet to no avail as it’s wiped away by a soft, rising motif (4:54) heard thrice in sequence with a dolce pause at the end of its third appearance, an extraordinarily immediate access to the opening theme which now takes in the angst of the second section theme to overcome it by even more highly charged optimism than before. All this is scrupulously detailed and resolutely progressed by Sirodeau.

I compare Gould who, taking 5:43 against Sirodeau’s 7:48, sports a considerably faster Andante. Possibly he’s a tad fast and Sirodeau is closer to Adagietto: Katchen’s timing of 6:04 suggests this is so. There are advantages and disadvantages to Gould’s approach. It makes the opening theme flow more comfortably. Gould characteristically spotlights the richness of the inner parts and after a clear but again smoother climax really brings out the basso profundo being allotted the opening of the theme. In some respects, Gould brings more emotive variety: the dolce resumption after the clouded lower tessitura material radiates with joy and thanksgiving. At the faster tempo, Gould’s second section, though still beauteous, is animated by alarm. In the repeat of the opening, he makes more of the ‘tenor’ part. Gould’s F sharp major chords fare less well than Sirodeau’s comforting stateliness. The return of the F sharp minor material is more alarming from Gould, but the transition to the return of the opening section is more tellingly and magically handled by Sirodeau. On the other hand, come the return of that opening, Gould achieves an attractive lilt and sweep. So, go to Sirodeau for majestic balance, to Gould for more sparks of fire. With Sirodeau you feel these are intensely thoughtful accounts by a fellow composer.
Michael Greenhalgh

4 Pieces, Op 119 (1893)
- No 1, Intermezzo in B minor
- No 2, Intermezzo in E minor
7 Fantasias, Op 116 (1892)
- No 4, Intermezzo in A major
- No 5, Intermezzo in E minor
- No 6, Intermezzo in E major
- No 2, Intermezzo in A minor
8 Pieces, Op 76 (1879)
- No 3, Intermezzo in A-flat major
- No 4, Intermezzo in B-flat major
3 Intermezzi, Op 117 (1892)
- No 1, Intermezzo in E-flat major
- No 2, Intermezzo in B-flat minor
- No 3, Intermezzo in C-sharp major
8 Pieces, Op 76 (1879)
- No 6, Intermezzo in A major
- No 7, Intermezzo in A minor
6 Pieces, Op 118 (1893)
- No 2, Intermezzo in A major

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