Like many composers in the 19th century, Brahms made his reputation by playing his own and other composers pieces on the piano. From what I’ve read, he was not the most brilliant of pianists as far as technique, but he was very musical. In his later years he hated to practice and played the premiere of his 2nd Piano Concerto after hardly touching a piano in years. He admitted he had better things to do than practice the piano three hours a day.
He played his own compositions to Robert and Clara Schumann in their home when he was 20 years old. Robert Schumann was not only a composer, but was an influential critic and writer. Brahms had been on concert tour with a Hungarian violinist as an accompanist when Joseph Joachim heard him, introduced him to Liszt and gave him a letter of introduction to the Schumanns. Schumann wrote about him in an article titled ‘New Paths’ in a music journal and hailed him as a genius.
Brahms continued to compose and be involved in the musical life of Hamburg, Dusseldorf and Vienna. His compositions were met with mixed results, his first piano concerto was roundly criticized and hissed at the first performance. It wasn’t until he composed his German Requiem in 1868 that Brahms got his European reputation as a great composer.
A contemporary of Brahms said that he played the piano like a composer. If his playing style is reflected in his music for solo piano, he was not a brilliant technician. his piano music is not full of scales running up and down the keyboard, but rather much of his music is dense with thick chords, with the melody embedded sometimes in an inner voice, sometimes an outer voice. This aspect of his music makes it difficult to play in its own way. Brahms piano music is not so much difficult because of technical glitter, but of musical substance and balance. Brahms had a tendency to write music in phrases made up of odd numbers of measures. Instead of 4-bar phrases Brahms many times writes 5-bar phrases. Couple this with the aforementioned thick chordal structure, and you’ve unlocked some of the reasons why Brahms music can sound not quite conventional, but not quite radical either. Brahms indeed found his own voice.
The Rhapsody For Piano in G minor is one of two that Brahms wrote in 1879 at the height of his popularity. It is in many ways typical Brahms. A lot going on, danger of the melody being swamped by all the inner workings, first theme threading through the accompaniment, the Brahmsian dilemma of keeping everything in balance. But Brahms leads the way for the pianist, as long as they remain alert and pay attention. Even the ritard at the end of the piece is worked out by Brahms, as the final six bars hold the melody in tied whole notes while the accompaniment is marked ‘quasi ritard’, with the eighth note accompaniment turning into quarter note triplets, and then to quarter notes thus creating Brahms’ ‘quasi ritard’.
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