Skip to page content

Assess Johannes Brahms’ image based on the commonly reproduced photographic evidence and you must reconcile two extremes. At one end is the strikingly handsome, long-haired, youthful Brahms – the iconic romantic virtuoso. At the other is the older, bushy-bearded, familiar Brahms – the iconic avuncular elder statesman. We tend to force his musical output to comport with this duality. 

In the case of his relatively small output for solo piano, this seems apt. His three sonatas and early sets of variations are all filled with swaggering virtuosity and relentless energy. Then, apart from his Klavierstücke, Op. 76 and the Two Rhapsodies of Op. 79, there is a long hiatus until the composer’s final decade when the four sets of Op. 116 through 119 appear in quick succession. 

But we make a mistake if we assume that all of these late pieces are in some way serene and autumnal. This is the work of a composer on the cusp of turning 60. The emotional fires may burn more briefly, but no less intensely.

The term intermezzo comes from the theatrical tradition of inserting a light diversion between the acts of a larger serious work. But in much the same way that Haydn called his gigantic variations a mere diversion, Brahms isn’t crafting trifles despite his titles. The three intermezzos we hear are by turns happy or active or tranquil, but never superficial. In fact they are intensely confidential and intimate, deeply private but gently shared.