Great experience last night at Kings Place – part of the Brahms Unwrapped season – our good friend Kenneth Hamilton playing (and talking about) Brahms’s piano music. His introductions were illuminating, informative, irreverent and witty as always, his playing quite phenomenally accurate, virtuosic and powerful: showing us Brahms in a whole new light.
Ken started with the first movement of Brahms’s astoundingly accomplished Sonata No. 3 in F minor, written when he was only 20; Ken convincingly argued that the movement must have started as some kind of composition exercise based on J S Bach’s ‘Weinen, Klagen’ (with Purcellian descending chromatic bass line) in the same key. He told us that the ‘grand ending’ of the movement implied that the audience would be expected to clap; we duly did, and he said he would have been somewhat put out if we hadn’t.
Then he introduced the rest of this huge sonata – unusually in five movements in all – explaining that the remaining four movements hung together and told a story; the second movement is prefaced by lines from a poem about ‘two hearts in love united’ – Ken demonstrated the ‘heartbeat’ – and Brahms’s melody fits the words so as to be almost a ‘Lied’ setting; then there’s a stormy Scherzo, then a little movement called ‘Rückblick’ (‘backward glance’), a minor-key version of the ‘two hearts’ number as a funeral march – ‘either the beloved is dead or their love is dead’, he said; Ken pointed out the triplet drumbeat motive so beloved of Verdi and Mahler, which he traces back to a Mendelssohn Song Without Words. Then a stormy finale using the ‘F A E’ theme which occurs elsewhere in his and his friends’ works – standing for ‘Frei aber einsam’, free but alone. So the 20-year-old Brahms is writing programme music – ‘but we all know Brahms doesn’t write programme music!’ We don’t know who the story is about, he said, but we can follow the ‘trajectory’ of the story – two hearts that beat as one, dissension, breakup, Brahms ultimately reconciled to being alone. Story of his life! (And in the 3rd Symphony the theme becomes ‘F A F’ – ‘Frei aber froh’ – free but happy: the confirmed bachelor.)
After the interval, we heard the last things Brahms wrote – three touching organ chorales, transcribed by Busoni. Then a little gavotte by Gluck, arranged by Brahms as an encore piece for Clara Schumann. Ken (authentically) proceeded to improvise a modulatory passage into the key of the next and final piece, the Handel Variations. Absolutely riveting performance, clearly characterising the 20 or so miniature ‘mood pieces’ of the variations – including a couple of ‘Hungarian dances’ and a musical box imitation (instructed to be played with the sustaining pedal held down so that the music jangled; and its clockwork runs down at the end!). Finally a massive and magisterial fugue, with a certain degree of pianistic sleight-of-hand but some genuinely complicated counterpoint as well. One began to view Brahms with a new respect (well, I did, at least). Ken’s performance rose to such heights of power and energy that he literally almost knocked himself out on the piano lid at the end (‘You’d think I’d know where it was by now’, he said).
And a pretty encore to send us home smiling.
Amazing evening. Congratulations to Ken – I haven’t done anything like justice to his constantly revelatory comments, nor to his ability to speak, illustrate and play with not a note (of words or music) in front of him. Thank you to Diana for getting us the tickets – wouldn’t have missed it for anything – and to Carol for joining us and being so appreciative. And for the dear friends we met in the audience (you know who you are!).