Late Masterpieces
    Writing this blog forces me to listen again to pieces that I know well to try and work out why I like them. I’ve known Brahms’ late piano miniatures (three sets, Op. 117, 118 and 119) for years, but never taken a very close look. The dance-like Intermezzo in C major, number three from the Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119, is a particular favourite. Just by listening it’s clear that the Intermezzo makes clever use of rhythmic ambiguity, and also that it’s very concentrated thematically. The theme in question is just four notes long and it’s stated (characteristically using a middle voice) right at the beginning in quavers – E, up to G, up to A and back down to G again – that’s it. Brahms uses variation and augmentation on the theme, but also uses a battery of rhythmical tricks to change its emphasis and build up tension. For instance: the theme constantly starts at different points in the bar (see the first 15 notes); there’s a constant interplay between 6/8 time and 3/4 time; the accents fall in unexpected places; and Brahms adds dissonant harmonies at the points where resolutions might have been expected. There’s also something of a battle between the home “natural” key of C major and A major (reached via A minor, the relative minor of C). A major is used for the middle section, which nevertheless remains focused on the same motif, just in a different key. Both the rhythmic (6/8 versus 3/4) and harmonic (C versus A major) conflicts are resolved in the coda. Brahms wrote the Op 119 pieces in 1893 on his summer holidays in the Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl. He was aged 60, had only four more years to live, and only the two Clarinet Sonatas (Op 120), some folk song arrangements, the Four Serious Songs (Op 121) and the Chorale Preludes (Op 122) left to compose.