Hall: Concert Hall
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Johannes Brahms’ final works for piano – four cycles of miniatures (Op. 116–119) composed during his summer sojourn in Bad Ischl in 1892 and 1893, are, according to the view taken by most monographers, the most intimate of his works. Diverse in form and often harmonically rich – according to Alfred Einstein, an authority on Romanticism, they range between exaltation and resignation – they share the same mood, suffused with melancholy and sorrow. Brahms used to dub them lullabies to his sorrows, perhaps in this way paraphrasing Herder’s couplet which he added to the score of his Intermezzo Op. 117 No. 1 (which was not typical of him): “Sleep softly my child, sleep softly and well. It hurts my heart to see you weeping.” Devoid of any gloss of virtuosity, the miniatures flicker with autumn colours. And so does György Ligeti’s étude Automne à Varsovie from the first collection of these extraordinary pieces. In these études, the problems of virtuosity are combined with extra‑musical ideas – everything worthy of the turn of the millennium.
Brahms’ miniatures also showed his understanding of the historical situation – Einstein argues that the miniatures brought the era of Romantic virtuoso play to an end. Igor Stravinsky’s extremely simple and deliberately somewhat brutal The Soldier’s Tale also marked the definitive end of the lavish belle époque following its death throes in the muddy trenches of Flanders. After the Great War nothing was the same. Stylistic changes and new musical trends came from across the ocean. As a result, twenty years later, Béla Bartók could yield, without any embarrassment, to a fascination with the new jazz wizardry of Benny Goodman and write the colourful Contrasts at his request. The New York premiere of the full version of this piece (1940) was overshadowed by a new and even more brutal war.