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Tanglewood 2012: Gerhard Oppitz plays Brahms at Ozawa Hall

Ozawa HallGreetings from the Berkshires, where I'm happy to be back after not having made my annual pilgrimage here last summer. At Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, things have been especially festive this season as they celebrate their 75th anniversary with a series of gala concerts and other events. In addition, the BSO is marking the occasion by releasing a series of archive recordings from past Tanglewood seasons, available online. (They're free to stream for 24 hours, after which they can be downloaded for $5-10.)

I arrived last night just in time to catch the pianist Gerhard Oppitz at Ozawa Hall, who has spent the past two weeks surveying all of Brahms' piano music. (He also played Mozart's 24th piano concerto last Sunday in the Shed.) Oppitz, who's relatively unknown in the states, is a pianist in the classic German tradition, and has made Brahms' piano music - itself relatively obscure - something of a specialty.

To be sure, Brahms' piano music is an acquired taste, lacking the narrative arc of Beethoven's sonatas, or the sheer firepower of Chopin or Liszt. By contrast, Brahms' music is more rigid and structured, its colors far more subtle - traits which tend to work better in the collective dynamic of chamber or orchestral music, for which Brahms is far better known. But, Brahms was himself a pianist, and the music he wrote for the instrument was highly personal, reflecting the many ups and downs of his life.

gerhard oppitz, ozawa hall 7/26/12
Oppitz began last night's concert with Eight Pieces, Owas p. 76: a selection of short pieces written between the 2nd symphony and Violin Concerto. The music had a dark, husky quality, broken by light trills that Oppitz played with a mix of passion and precision. With his lean-back posture and legs fully extended, he was the spitting image of Brahms, save the 10-inch beard.

I was much more engaged by the Sonata No. 2, which followed. Starting right out of the gate with a bold, four-octave blast that sounded almost Russian, the sonata hurtled forward in a torrent of notes, mixing strange dissonances with rhapsodic gestures. This, I thought, was a big, mature piece of music: imagine my surprise, then, to read in the program that this was Brahms' first published piece of music, written when he was nineteen. Unbelievable: no wonder Robert and Clara Schumann called him a genius when they heard him play the sonata the year after it was written.

Speaking of the Schumanns: after Robert was institutionalized in 1854, Brahms and Clara fell madly in love. Sadly, their love was never consummated, but Brahms was inspired to write music for Clara, who was regarded as one of the greatest pianists of her day. By the time Brahms wrote his Three Intermezzos, Op. 117, Clara was in her 70s and near the end of her stage career. Appropriately, the pieces have an elegiac, mysterious quality, a farewell of sorts. (Whether he wrote these pieces specifically for Clara or not is unclear.) The first intermezzo, which sounded like a sad lullaby, was particularly memorable: simultaneously beautiful and crushing. 

Oppitz ended the program - and the cycle - with Brahms' Variations on a Theme by G.F. Handel, Op. 24. Bright and Baroque, the variations quickly evolved from a simple tune into a furious flurry of notes that was both heroic and blistering. To my ears, some of the variations sounded almost Reich-like in their repetitiveness, a connection which I'm sure would amuse both composers.

gerhard oppitz, ozawa hall 7/26/12
Speaking of Reich, he'll be the guest composer at tomorrow's Bang on a Can Summer Marathon just up the street at Mass MoCA, just like he was in 2005, when I made my first trip to the new music nirvana known up this way as "Banglewood." I'll be there, in between trips to the Tanglewood shed. With a picnic, of course.

More pics from last night's concert on the photo page.