Wagner said about the "Handel Variations" that it showed "what could still be done with the old forms," a grudging but genuine acknowledgment of the work's power and inventiveness. It was Brahms' personal favorite, and it demonstrates how the youthful exuberance of the early sonatas has been channeled into organic necessity by the composer's careful study of Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier."
Its 25 variations visit not only Bach and Handel, but also Couperin and Beethoven, and conclude with a triumphant fugue.
* The late works. In 1892 and 1893, as he was turning 60 and had less than five years to live, Brahms published four collections of shorter pieces: Opus 116, 117, 118 and 119. These collections, containing 20 pieces, rank among his finest achievements.
"It is with the late piano works that we reach Brahms' most personal music for his chosen instrument," Artur Rubinstein wrote. "Brahms in his final years produced serene and nostalgic music that was ever more inward in mood. ... They are so intensely intimate that one cannot really convey their substance to a large audience."
Sharp insights from a great Brahms interpreter. But while these pieces are deeply nostalgic, serene is not an adjective I would use to describe them. Many of the fantasies in the Opus 116 set are restless, agitated, even angry. And Brahms himself referred to the three intermezzi of Opus 117 as "cradlesongs of my sorrows."
Unlike the early sonatas and the middle-period sets of variations, the composer does not use the musical forms of the past. But these works -- like other late pieces by other great composers -- bid farewell to a musical world that no longer exists.
Perhaps the most poignant of these pieces is the tragic E-Flat Minor Intermezzo that closes Opus 118. The modifiers for the Andante tempo marking are "largo e mesto" ("slow and mournful"). Despair and grief mark the forlorn theme that is developed to a shattering climax and then comes to a subdued, keening close that only intensifies the uncertainty.
At the end of his life and at the end of the last century, Brahms seems to have reached the conclusion that the traditional musical language he loved can remain viable only if it reflects upon its own disintegration. Brahms' prophecy, troubling then, is even more disturbing today.
Brahms, Brahms, Brahms
What: Leon Fleisher's students play piano works by Brahms in Friedberg Hall.
When: Monday 7 p.m.-11 p.m., Tuesday 7 p.m.-11 p.m. and Wednesday 7 p.m.-8 p.m.
Tickets: All three nights are free and open to the public, but tickets are required Wednesday.
Pub Date: 04/25/99