Ian Hobson Celebrates the 180th Anniversary of Brahms’s Birth
Pianist Ian Hobson needs no introduction to readers of this journal. He has been interviewed in these pages a number of times, and his reputation as an artist of international renown with impeccable credentials is assured. My own first encounter with Hobson on record was his critically acclaimed Beethoven sonata cycle, originally released on Arabesque. That outstanding series of recordings was subsequently transferred to the Zephyr label, and has remained in the catalog ever since. Hobson has also recorded the complete works of Chopin for Zephyr in 16 volumes, as well Ignaz Moscheles’s piano concertos, Hummel’s piano sonatas, and much else, spanning composers from Mozart to Benjamin Lees, Quincy Porter, and John Philip Sousa.
Customarily, performing artists are interviewed in these pages in concurrence with their newly recorded releases that have just come out or are about to. This interview, however, is a bit different in that it’s not tied to any new recordings by Hobson, but rather to discuss with him an ambitious undertaking he is to embark upon in September of this year. Beginning on September 10, and continuing through November 14, Ian will perform all of Brahms’s solo and chamber music for piano in a series of 14 recitals, divided between Benzaquen and Mary Flagler Cary Halls at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York City.
Jerry: Am I correct that you did this once before, at the University of Illinois in 2012? I notice that that cycle was organized into 16 concerts, whereas this latest one is reduced to 14. Is anything being left out this time, or have you just rearranged works to fit in a fewer number of programs? What’s different this time around?
Ian: I gave a six-concert series of Brahms’s solo and chamber music with piano at the University of Illinois in 2012–13, where I’ve been on the faculty since 1975. This included the works for two pianos, namely, the
Variations on the St Antoni Chorale
and the two-piano version of the Piano Quintet, op. 34. In New York, I will not be performing the two-piano version of the quintet, but will be including it in its final form. Also to be included is the four-hand version by Brahms of Schumann’s Piano Quartet, op. 47. Otherwise, everything is included, with Schumann as a starting point, notably Brahms’s extraordinary Variations, op. 23, on Schumann’s
(Last Thought) which Schumann jotted down in 1854, just before his attempted suicide. In the program on September 24, I will play arrangements by Brahms of a Schubert Impromptu, a Weber sonata movement, a Chopin etude, and the Scherzo from Schumann’s Piano Quintet. In totality, it’s an amazing body of work that was written over 40 years of Brahms’s life, and it presents the player with transcendentally difficult virtuosic writing, the likes of which one encounters in Leopold Godowsky’s Chopin and Schubert arrangements of a few years later.
Jerry: Ian, you and I have never spoken before, so you have no way of knowing that Brahms is my all-time favorite composer, which is probably why I was lucky enough to be asked to do this interview. Brahms was so maligned by Wagner, his followers, and not a few critics for being a regressive. It took Schoenberg and a general reassessment of Brahms’s work to silence that cabal and finally reveal just how progressive and great a composer he was. No other composer, in fact, was as imitated as Brahms; the list of Brahms wannabes is a long one. Yet, even though Brahms is now considered one of the “three Bs” in music’s eternal firmament, there are still a lot of music lovers who just can’t abide him. What’s that joke about the sign in the concert hall: “In case of Brahms, Exit?” Why do you think this is so? I have my own theory, but I’d like to hear yours. What is it about his music that really does seem to turn off a lot of listeners?
Ian: Schumann, on the verge of madness, heard Brahms’s early sonatas and short pieces in 1853, and declared that Brahms “is springing like Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove.” He recognized Brahms as a firebrand, a leader of the music of the future. The events of the next few decades, which pitted Brahms (and Clara Schumann) against Wagner and Liszt, have as much to do with the personalities of these individuals as with the larger musical and political scene. Brahms himself took a different turn after his First Piano Concerto into more distilled, introspective creations. He worked as a copyist on
and certainly admired Wagner, but under the influence of Clara, began to decry the flashiness of Liszt’s works. Brahms’s piano style, even at its most virtuosic, was worlds away from Liszt’s easy brilliance. In answer to your question about audience reticence about Brahms—and I think it’s only about the piano music—some of the performances in the 20th century have been overly serious, with slow tempos and a heavy hand, which has had a detrimental effect on his acceptance. There is such elegance and lilt in all the music, from miniatures to great structures, and it is there to be re-created, as the symphonies, serenades, and sextets have been re-created to such wonderful effect. Of course, I speak in general terms; there have been some notable, magnificent interpretations of Brahms’s piano music from great performers over the last 100 years.
Jerry: Brahms’s relationship with the piano strikes me as very different from Beethoven’s. For one thing, Beethoven composed a great deal more for solo keyboard than Brahms did. When you look at Brahms’s catalog of published works, it’s surprising, really, how few entries there are under the category of solo piano works. There are the three big, bravura sonatas he wrote at the age of 19, and then he never returned to the genre. You have the four Ballades, half-a-dozen sets of variations, the two rhapsodies, a handful of miscellaneous pieces and arrangements, and then, of course, the four late sets of piano pieces. And all of those works that Brahms did write for solo piano give us a clue, I think, into why the instrument wasn’t the means to an end for him that it was for Beethoven. Those three early sonatas tell us that what Brahms wanted from the piano was something it couldn’t give him—the sound and fury and the heterogeneous layers of textures that only a full orchestra can deliver. Brahms thought and composed symphonically. And even years later, when we get to those four late sets of piano pieces, though there’s an intimacy and reflectiveness to them, Brahms is now trying to extract from the instrument subtle and delicate colors of an almost Impressionist orchestral canvas. I’m not saying that Brahms’s works for solo piano are not great music; they are. But it seems to me that where his heart for the instrument lies is in his many incomparable chamber works that give him the opportunity to explore those heterogeneous textures and colors. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think I’m completely off-base on this?
Ian: You’re quite right about the piano not being as central to Brahms as it was to Beethoven. Beethoven had written 28 sonatas for the piano before the “Hammerklavier,” which takes the possibilities of the instrument to the limit in every respect. Brahms, in his op. 1, is obviously besotted by the “Hammerklavier,” and imitates its themes, fugatos, and overwrought complexities. You never get the feeling that Beethoven’s piano sonatas were conceived as anything other than piano pieces, but with Brahms they are almost like short scores for later orchestral expansion. The three sonatas and the Scherzo, op. 4, have a number of models in the symphonies of Beethoven rather than his sonatas. As we move on to the Ballades and especially the Rhapsodies, I think Brahms is writing for the instrument at hand; the style is simpler, more lyrical, and nobler than in the early works. In the short pieces, opp. 76 and 116–119, Brahms uses great economy of means to create tone poems, some dance-like, some ethereal, some orchestral. But, as you point out, the chamber music is where Brahms’s greatest piano writing is seen with utter consistency and surefootedness. That is why it’s so satisfying to traverse the solo and chamber works in totality. I’m not sure whether one person has done this since Brahms himself, but it’s an enormous pleasure and privilege for me to play the greatest chamber music ever written for piano, alongside the music he wrote for his favorite instrument.
Jerry: Fairly recently, I’ve had occasion to review three or four new recordings by pianists performing Brahms’s solo piano works on period instruments, namely Streichers and Bösendorfers dating from between 1850 and 1875—in other words, within Brahms’s lifetime. Unquestionably, the composer played on instruments of this make and vintage, but what I find somewhat amusing is the assumption on the part of the period-instrument advocates that these were the pianos that Brahms would have found ideal, just as they assume that because he worked with the Meiningen Orchestra, which premiered his Fourth Symphony, that he preferred smaller orchestras. Actually, the contrary is true. When the forces could be mustered, Brahms favored large ensembles; and when it came to the piano, it’s documented that he first performed on a New York Steinway in Mannheim on December 5, 1865, and thereafter spoke of its exceptional tone and keyboard action. We also know that he called for an American Steinway for the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto. So, my question to you is: What do you think of this downsizing of forces and of performing Brahms’s keyboard works on period instruments?
Ian: I’ve had occasion to perform Beethoven and the early 19th-century composers on historical instruments, such as Rosenberger, Broadwood, Graf, and Bösendorfer. I’ve found that, in addition to the fascinating sound qualities of the instruments, when they are played in combination with string and wind instruments of the period, the sound balances that can be problematic amongst modern instrumental combinations are simply nonexistent. I’m thinking of works like Chopin’s Trio, op. 8, or Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata. While I haven’t played late 19th-century works on historical instruments, it seems to me that instrumental forces are more equally matched, more or less as they are among today’s powerful instruments. I’ve been fortunate in that I have conducted all Brahms’s orchestral music at one time or another, and I think that has helped me as I come lately to the early piano sonatas. I agree with you that Brahms would have preferred a more powerful piano, which in the right hands can evoke the might and majesty of his orchestra.
Jerry: Turning now to your Brahms recital undertaking, obviously, you must have a very special love of his music to dedicate yourself to such an exhaustive project, so please share with us, if you would, what motivated you and what it is about this repertoire that so appeals to you.
Ian: I have always loved Brahms since my early days, growing up in England. The first major orchestral performance I heard was of Brahms’s Second Symphony with the Hallé Orchestra under Barbirolli in Coventry Cathedral. The cavernous acoustics coupled with Sir John’s vibrant approach produced a memorable experience for me. I steeped myself in the chamber music as a student in London, Cambridge, and New Haven, and availed myself of live performances by Karajan, Steinberg, Ormandy, and others, as well as of countless cheap LPs of great performances of the past. Three of my piano teachers, Ward Davenny, Claude Frank, and Menahem Pressler, were interested in chamber music at least as much as solo, and this influenced me greatly. As for the motivation for this series, it came about gradually. I have in recent seasons devoted myself in concert and on disc to all the piano music of Chopin and Schumann. The Brahms idea seemed a natural outgrowth. The chamber music I was already very familiar with, and it was what drew me to Brahms; much of the solo music, aside from the variation sets, was not in my repertoire, but was very tempting.
Jerry: I’m not a pianist, but I’ve been told by pianists, and have read, that Brahms’s writing for the keyboard is technically difficult and knotty in ways that the keyboard writing of other composers isn’t. Is it a matter of fluency and the fact that the patterns and figurations don’t lie easily under the hands? Rhythmically, too, Brahms can be so tricky and counterintuitive. I love what Alex Ross had to say in his recent book,
Listen to This
, in which he devotes an entire chapter to Brahms. “Brahms’s secret weapon,” Ross writes, is “rhythm.” What were some of the challenges you faced in having to learn and come to grips with so many works?
Ian: Brahms’s predilection for syncopation and hemiola can probably be ascribed to his absorption of Schumann in his early years. Your reference to the three Bs is even more relevant to his approach to rhythm in the long term. Bach was the consummate master of integrating dance and polyphony in the most complex rhythmic edifices. Brahms inherited from Beethoven a subtlety about rhythmic relationships. The alternations between Arioso and Fugue in the last movement of op. 110 imply that the tempos are more or less the same between them. The
of op. 111 is connected to the
by a trill in the bass going from 32nd notes to 16th notes, implying that the
is twice as fast as the
. Similarly, the
opening of the finale to Brahms’s First Symphony is connected to the ensuing
, with a timpani roll going from 12 to 6 strokes per beat, a subtle reminder that the eighth-note in the old tempo equals the quarter-note in the new. Brahms was the most informed about the music of the past of all the great musicians of his era. He had a large collection of Renaissance and baroque music in his library. The archaic forms in some of his works sound so authentic because they are thoroughly integrated with his personal voice. The most complicated rhythms occur in one of the variations in Book 2 of the “Paganini” Variations, where there are nine 16th notes in the right hand over eight in the left. Yet the method of playing this nightmare is to use a fluid rotation of the wrists so that it plays itself when the downbeats align. This is true of the tricky counting in the late piano pieces. They must be played in a non-frantic manner and allowed to unfold and be appreciated in a calm manner. Easier said than done, no question it’s a serious challenge for the pianist.
Jerry: You bring up so many points in your last answer that I’d just love to explore at greater length—for one, the matter of Beethoven’s rhythmic oddities in his late works. It’s almost as if he heard rhythmic relationships in his head that were beyond the possibility of notating precisely in the metric system. For example, there’s that bizarre variation in the Arietta movement of op. 111 in a meter of 6/16, where there are six 16th notes in each measure plus six 32nd notes. As for Brahms, I’m convinced that he expanded the concept of modulation, which we think of as a strictly harmonic event, and applied it to rhythm as well. An example is in the Adagio of the Second Symphony, which begins in a meter of 4/4. Then beginning in bar 20, he introduces a syncopated pattern and maintains it so persistently that the ear begins to perceive it as a compound meter. And sure enough, at bar 33, the meter changes to 12/8, but the rhythm has already modulated there before the change occurs, so that we don’t even experience it as a shift in meter, just as in the most artful of harmonic modulations, unless one has perfect pitch, we don’t necessarily perceive a shift in the tonal center. Unfortunately, there’s just not time (no pun intended) to get into these areas in elaborate detail. So, let me just ask you, are there fundamental differences in the style and approach of Brahms’s keyboard writing between the pieces for solo piano and the chamber works?
Ian: As I said, I knew much of the chamber music before knowing the earlier piano music, so I tend to approach the latter as chamber music played by one person. The piano writing in the chamber music is generally easier in that it is less dense, although there are pockets of virtuosity to keep amateurs away (e.g., the first movement of the E♭-Clarinet Sonata or the finale of the F-Minor Quintet). The warmth and tenderness which is so evident in the chamber music must be sought after in the more orchestral early sonatas. Of course, there are great technical difficulties in some of the variation sets and in the solo version of the
. All of these pieces point to the fact that Brahms must have been a phenomenal pianist at some point in his life.
Jerry: That last question leads naturally to this next one. So many of the works on these 14 programs are chamber works involving anywhere from one other player—the cello, clarinet, and violin sonatas—up to four additional players—the piano quintet—and numbers in between—the horn, clarinet, and piano trios and the piano quartets—tell me something about your musician colleagues who are joining you in this enterprise.
Ian: My colleagues in this series include three artists that I have worked with and been friends with for three decades. Andrés Cárdenes, until recently concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony, has performed with me in many capacities on many occasions. There is a recording, shortly to be released on the Artec label, of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and the Piano Concerto version. I conduct when Andrés plays, and he conducts when I play (with Sinfonia Varsovia). Csaba Erdélyi is a distinguished violist, formerly of the Chilingirian Quartet and principal of the Philharmonia Orchestra. We first met when I played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and he played Berlioz’s
Harold in Italy
with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Later we recorded Liszt’s version of
Harold in Italy
for Hungaroton. Ko Iwasaki, cellist, was on the faculty at Illinois many years ago, and we have toured in the U.S. and Japan as a duo. There are colleagues from the University of Illinois: Rochelle Sennet, pianist, my former student and now colleague on the faculty; Igor Kalnin, violinist, her husband and concertmaster of my orchestra, Sinfonia da Camera; Edward Rath, pianist, who is secretary of the American Liszt Society and former associate director of the Music School; Bernhard Scully, hornist (formerly of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra); David Harris, clarinetist; Dmitry Kouzov, cellist; Samir Golescu, pianist, another former student of mine, and Claude Hobson, pianist, my ex-wife with whom I recorded the op. 23 Variations a number of years ago on Arabesque.
Jerry: Are the concerts being recorded? Those Brahms lovers among us, especially those who don’t live in the New York area and are unable to attend this wonderful series of events, would like to know.
Ian: I expect that there will be archival recordings made of the series. Also, some parts of the repertoire are being recorded separately for release later (e.g, the violin and piano works on Artec in the fall).
For those who are fortunate enough to be able to attend these concerts, tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets, 1-800-838-3006, or btm.com. Following is a complete program listing.
Tuesday, September 10, 7:30 p.m., Benzaquen Hall
2. Scherzo in E♭-Minor, op. 4
3. Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, op. 23 (piano, four hands)
4. Piano Sonata No. 1 in C, op. 1
Thursday, September 12, 7:30 p.m., Benzaquen Hall
1. Piano Sonata No. 2 in f♯, op. 2
Nos. 11–21 (piano, four hands)
Edward A. Rath
Tuesday, September 24, 7:30 p.m., Benzaquen Hall
1. Bach/Brahms Chaconne
, op. 103
3. Studies and Arrangements of Bach, Chopin, Gluck, Schubert, Schumann, and Weber
Thursday, September 26, 7:30 p.m., Cary Hall
1. Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, op. 9
2. Two Rhapsodies, op. 79
3. Piano Sonata No. 3 in f, op. 5
Tuesday, October 1, 7:30 p.m., Cary Hall
1. Variations on an Original Theme, op. 21/1
2. Four Ballades, op. 10
3. Eight Piano Pieces, op. 76
Thursday, October 3, 7:30 p.m., Cary Hall
1. Waltzes, op. 39 (piano, four hands)
2. Variations on a Hungarian Song, op. 21/2
3. Schumann Piano Quartet, op. 47 (piano, four hands)
Tuesday, October 8, 7:30 p.m., Cary Hall
1. Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, op. 78
2. Horn Trio in E♭, op. 40
3. Violin Sonata No. 3 in d, op. 108
Andrés Cárdenes (vn)
Bernhard Scully (hn)
Thursday, October 10, 7:30 p.m., Cary Hall
1. Violin Sonata No. 2 in A, op. 100
2. Piano Quintet in f, op. 34
3. Piano Quartet No. 1 in g, op. 25
Andrés Cárdenes (vn)
Igor Kalnin (vn)
Csaba Erdélyi (va)
Ko Iwasaki (vc)
Tuesday, October 22, 7:30 p.m., Benzaquen Hall
1. Piano Trio No. 3 in c, op. 101
2. Piano Trio No. 2 in C, op. 87
3. Piano Trio No. 1 in B, op. 8
Andrés Cárdenes (vn)
Ko Iwasaki (vc)
Thursday, October 24, 7:30 p.m., Cary Hall
1. Clarinet Trio in a, op. 114
2. Cello Sonata No. 1 in e, op. 38
3. Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E♭, op. 120/2
4. Cello Sonata No. 2 in F, op. 99
J. David Harris (cl)
Dmitri Kouzov (vc)
Tuesday, November 5, 7:30 p.m., Benzaquen Hall
1. Sonatensatz in c, WoO 2
2. Piano Quartet No. 2 in A, op. 26
3. Piano Quartet No. 3 in c, op. 60
Andrés Cárdenes (vn)
Csaba Erdélyi (va)
Ko Iwasaki (vc)
Thursday, November 7, 7:30 p.m., Benzaquen Hall
1. Seven Fantasias, op. 116
2. Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, op. 24
Tuesday, November 12, 7:30 p.m., Cary Hall
1. Viola Sonata No. 1 in f, op. 120/1
2. Seven Piano Pieces, op. 118
3. Viola Sonata in D (arr. by Erdélyi of Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, op. 78)
Csaba Erdélyi (va)
Thursday, November 14, 7:30 p.m., Cary Hall
1. Three Intermezzos, op. 117
2. Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Books I and II
3. Four Piano Pieces, op. 119
Prélude en forme de scherzo. Orchestral movement. Posvícení. Nocturno
Little Dance Suite
Ian Hobson, cond; Snf Varsovia
TOCCATA 0156 (67:38)
Trinity Concerto. The Great Passage. The Eternal Return
Ian Hobson, cond; Sherban Lupu (vn); Andrei Tanasescu (pn); Snf da Camera
TOCCATA 0131 (77:32)