Brahms’ Intermezzo op. 117 no. 2

Neumic Signs and Places of Indeterminacy
Carlo Bianchi


      The Intermezzo op. 117 no. 2 is a quite short piece yet revealing basic features of Brahms’ late style. Given an overall triadic tonality slightly enlarged, the formal outline stems from constant ‘developing variation’ of a two-bar motif – phrase according to Arnold Schönberg [1967, 4] or basic idea to William Caplin [1998, 9] who evokes Schönberg himself [1947b, 81] infra. This cell unfolds through the realm of melody, harmony and counterpoint with three large‑scale implications:

– melody and accompaniment result in a hybrid texture blurring the difference between linear sets and triadic harmony;

– initial imitations logically reach a semi‑counterpoint or quasi‑counterpoint [Schönberg 1967, 85] within the development section (C);

– the one‑motif continuous flow mitigates the contrasts between the three main sections (A, B and C) of this seemingly sonata form:

      The theoretical‑analytical concept of ‘developing variation’ (entwickelnde Variation) was stated by Schönberg in his book Fundamental of Musical Composition [1967, 8]. To substantiate this theory in other writings he briefly analyzes Beethoven’s passages such as the foremost outset of the 5th Symphony.

Schönberg’s ex. 1-3

Example 2 shows how the motive of the transition is derived from a reinterpretation of the two main notes E flat and F (marked by ⁎) as tonic and dominant of E flat major surrounded by B flats. Example 3 shows how the subordinate theme is related to that and to the first statement of the motive (Example 1a). This is what I call the method of developing variation. [Id. 1947a, 200]

      Similarly, in the extensive essay Brahms the Progressive he analyzes the first theme of Beethoven’s string Quartet op. 95 to explain Brahms’ late strategies from Verrat (op. 105 no. 5). Schönberg argues that he most important capacity of a composer “is to cast a glance into the most remote future of his themes or motives […] to know beforehand the consequences which derive from the problems existing in his material, and to organize everything accordingly” [Id. 1947b, 80].

L.v. Beethoven op. 95 – I

Schönberg’s ex. 36a-g

I cannot renounce the opportunity to illustrate the remoteness of a genius’ foresight. In Example 36a (Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 95) there appear in the first measure the three notes Db, C and D (36a and b). In Example 36c this succession is retrograded to D, C, Db and transposed a seventh up. A comparison of Example 37a, b, and c with Example 36d, e, f, and g unveils the origin of the enigmatic procedures in the upper and lower voices of measures 7-9 and simultaneously shows how the strange figure in measure 36 (example 37b) is related to the basic idea. [Id. 1947b, 80-81]

Schönberg’s ex. 37 A, B, C

          Schönberg’s concept of ‘developing variation’ applies to Brahms’ style according to a well‑known critical tradition [Frisch 1982; 1984; Musgrave 1990; Schmidt 2001; Sirman 2006]. Yet, by exploiting such a broad category, Brahms composed an almost ‘rebuttal’ of the classical Formenlehre tenets which Schönberg outlines in Fundamental of Musical Composition [Spies 1990 in Hepokoski & Darcy 2006, 6].

Ex. 1a – J. Brahms, Intermezzo op. 117 no. 2 infra

      The Intermezzo op. 117 no. 2 sheds light on Brahms’ typical variation of motivic cells throughout both the small- and large-scale sections of a given work. Contrasted with ex. 1a, my Schenkerian yet non‑orthodoxian graph in ex. 1b‑c shows that the developing variation has to do mainly with interval‑factors.[1] Specifically, the basic motif and its variations stem from a double appoggiatura in the upper line. A similar dyad is also exploited for the bass line, and its inversion originates the rising arpeggios in the left hand.

[1] Carl Dahlhaus points out that Schönberg’s writings on ‘developing variation’ reduce the authentic substance of music to intervals or groups of intervals, while the parameters of rhythm, harmonic functions and form are relegated to an external level of ‘representation’, not of ‘thought’ (Gedanke) [Dahlhaus 1999, 132].

Ex. 1b [Bianchi 2023, p. 7]

Ex. 1c [ibid.]

      As the first sentence in lasting bb. 1‑8 avoids repetition of motif 1, it diverges from the classic sentence form 4+4 as presentation + continuation/development [2×2+4]. While the Formenlehre identifies an architype of this form with the first theme of Beethoven’s op. 2 no. 1 [Schönberg 1967, 58‑62; Ratz 1951, 23; Caplin 1998, 35‑48] the opening sentence of the 5th Symphony captured Schonberg’s interest as more ambiguous in its progressive development.[2] Brahms’ unit 1-8 also avoids motivic contrast – it diverges from Caplin’s ‘hybrid’ types too [1994]. Caplin’s ‘hybrids’ indeed merge features of the sentence and of the period being the latter a 4-bar antecedent (including contrast)

 [2] If we regard the first 4-bar ‘fate’ motif as presentation [2×2] then a continuation follows marked by an extension of its functions until bar 21. Caplin, instead, identifies the beginning unit with a thematic introduction, and bars 6-21 with a presentation-continuation sentence [8+8] according to his own distinction between ‘real’ (R) and ‘notated’ (N) notes. This famous theme is an eight-measure sentence notated as sixteen measures (R = 2N). If we believe that R = N, then we meet with a basic idea lasting four real measures, which runs counter to our knowledge that the basic idea of most main themes is two real measures in length. Our familiarity with classical norms, combined with our intuitive sense that each notated measure does not contain sufficient material for a real measure of music, helps confirm our interpretation that R = 2N”. [Caplin 1998, 35]

+ 4-bar symmetric consequent (Beethoven op. 95 above shows hybrid 1 as antecedent + continuation [Id. 1998, 59]). True, Brahms weakly addresses an ‘ideal’ classical sentence trough the fugitive expansion‑liquidation at bb. 5‑6 and the following surface acceleration at 6‑7 over a dominant chord. To some extent, a development of section 1‑4 is suggested. But classic sentence generally conveys growing tension in the Nachsatz, while here an aural climax [Deliège 1990/91; 2001] first occurs at bb. 2‑3 – namely the striking harmonic change and melodic peak of motif 3, later exploited in a descendant progression.

      Like in several of Brahms’ works, such treatment of the same cell involves subtle novelties within a seemingly traditional 8‑bar sentence. Schönberg similarly describes the beginning of the Andante from the string Quartet in A minor op. 51: “these subcutane beauties are accommodated within eight measures; and if eight measures constitute an aesthetic principle, it is preserved here in spite of the great freedom of construction” [Schönberg 1947b, 94]. Instinctively, Schönberg sponsored such features to corroborate his own poetics and style. Not by chance, his enthusiastic analysis of Brahms’ works points out their novelty (Brahms is ‘the progressive’) and the organic coherence of Brahms’ structures as well. The latter feature also deserves critical attention. An implicit agreement for the convergence between melody, harmony and counterpoint falls within the overcoming of the ‘vertical‑linear’ contraposition that occurs in dodecaphony. An explicit appreciation for Brahms’ highly dense texture where even the smallest element is relevant evokes both dodecaphony and Schönberg’s earlier Expressionistic trend.


      On the basis of the logical strategies of his works and which he praised in previous composers, Schönberg felt a strong symbiosis between composition, theory and performance.  To him the latter played itself a relevant role for a thorough comprehension of the music setting down to the smallest detail. Since his writings of the 1920s [Schönberg 1975, 319‑320] he described the performance as closely connected to the work representation and the Gedanke (thought) underlying the whole structure [Dahlhaus 1999; Stephan 1999]. Then, in his essay on Mahler as a conductor, he wrote:

[…] the productive man conceives within himself a complete image of what he wishes to reproduce; the performance, like everything else that he brings forth, must not be less perfect than the image. Such re‑creation is only slightly different from creation; virtually, only the approach is different. Only when one has clarified this point to oneself does one comprehend how much is meant by the modest words with which Mahler himself characterized his highestaim as a conductor: “I consider it my greatest service that I force the musicians to play exactly what is in the notes.” [Schönberg 1950, 27]

      Theodor Adorno and Rudolf Kolisch have critically discussed the relationship between composition and performance in Schönberg’s age and thought [Adorno 1967; 1982; Adorno – Kolish 1954]. More recently, Hermann Danuser and Gianmario Borio have resumed the matter in their essays respectively on Schönberg [Danuser 1999] and on Adorno and Kolisch [Borio 2003; 2007]. Adorno pointed out that the concept of subcutaneous beauty referred to Brahms’s Quartet is what in Schönberg’s view connects the performance and the underlying idea of the composition, i.e. the ground as precious and articulated as not immediately tangible, which the performer must probe in order to grasp and return the meaning of the work.

What he [Schönberg] designates as the ‘subcutaneous’ – the fabric of individual musical events, grasped as the ineluctable moments of an internally coherent totality – breaks through the surface, becomes visible and manifests itself independently of all stereotyped forms. Thus the inward dimension moves outward. Ordering categories, which reduce the difficulties of active listening at the cost of the pure elaboration of the work, are eliminated. [Adorno 1967, 153; Borio 2007, 55]

     Adorno wondered what can be learnt about Beethoven, following Schönberg’s ideas on analysis and performance. The question becomes all the more relevant when it comes to Brahms – a composer even more admired by Schönberg – with particular regard to those features that may not be evident at first glance but play a fundamental role in the compositional process. If anything, the critical point of this view lies in the act of performance conceived just as a ‘means’ between the internal dimension of the work and its representation as aural experience. Like other theorists of the early 20th century, Schönberg conceived the performance as a faithful ‘radiography’ of the written score (neumic elements). According to him, a sensitive phenomenon such the performance should involve all the relationships, all the facets of the musical network, of the contrast and of the construction underlying the surface, aiming to make them tangible [Adorno 2001, 9]. In other words, the performance would search for an unaltered transmission of though reached in depth and therefore of a supposed unequivocal will of the composer.

      Such an idea – though – foreclosed Schönberg the dialectical relationship between work and performer argued by Adorno himself in his Interpretationsanalyse. On the wave of Adorno, recent performance studies connect analysis and performance through a common hermeneutic ground and history of reception [Ballstaedt – Hinrichsen 2008; Garda – Rocconi 2016, 1‑8]. Mine Doğantan‑Dack offers a most critic overview with socio‑political inferences [Doğantan‑Dack 2015; 2022]. In the case of Brahms’ Intermezzo, a ‘dialectic’ performance as every time different can paradoxically throw light on the very subcutaneous beauties unfolding since the first sentence 1‑8.

      The history of performance proves that it is almost impossible to avoid places of indeterminacy in the music notation [Borio 2004b; Ingarden 1989], notwithstanding the increasing degree of precision with which the composers have fixed their thinking on paper since the early Romanticism. A notation more bound up with the composer’s will and the aural experience [Rosen 1995] also emerges from Brahms’ works [Grassi 2004]. Nevertheless, a total identity between thoughts and neumic signs has been a utopia also for the rationalistic Zeitgeist of the 1950‑60, which affected the practice of performance on the basis of serial avant‑garde and of Stravinsky’s neoclassic trend.[3]

The places of indeterminacy underlying the notation of Brahms’ Intermezzo which have determined the history of its interpretation can shed light, first of all, on the basic motif as a melody generated (not just accompanied) through bass and harmonies. Brahms conceived the three Intermezzos op. 117 as Lieder ohne Worte (“Songs without words”) [Parmer 1995, 162]. On the one hand, this makes appropriate to identify a four‑note melody in the upper line of motif 1. On the other, the organic structure and treatment of the motif lies precisely in the confluence between this melodic cell and the triadic arpeggios, sustained by the inverted dyad‑imitation in the left hand and by an almost same dyad in the basses. Furthermore, Brahms notation randomly indicates the distinction between melody and accompaniment as it gives longer value to certain notes of the upper line.

      Rather than early ‘romantic’ performances dealing with a supposed identity of Brahms [Scott 2014], I consider exactly some great pianists of the 1950-60 when the peak of rationalism and

[3] This was pointed out by Mario Messinis as director of the International Festival of Contemporary Music (Venice) in his essay on Artur Rubinstein and the neoclassic trend of the 1950s [Messinis 1986, 81]. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was a paradigmatic pianist of those years owing to his unfailing performances in concert. While speaking of a ‘decline’ of the piano, Beniamino Dal Fabbro described them “perfette in quanto equivalenza affatto materiale delle note suonate e delle note scritte” [Id. 1951, 206]. ABM preparedness in phrasing and touch evoked structuralism [Rattalino 1983, 340]. Such an identification also stemmed from his non common knowledge/master of the piano inner mechanics [Passadori 2005]. Luigi Pestalozza rather assigned such an outstanding role to the very young Maurizio Pollini, given his analytic and constructive precision and his intensive performances of works by Manzoni, Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen. If anything, Pestalozza associates Pollini’s avant-garde identity with the geometric performance in the classic-romantic repertoire sought by some older pianists at around 1960 (Michelangeli, Rubinstein, Gilels, Serkin, Cziffra). “The piano has been reappraised in the production of ideas on sound and above all in the production of music. Is this only credit of the composers? Certainly Boulez, Stockhausen and later Berio, Manzoni, Nono, Sciarrino, Bussotti (and many others) have among other things made us understand that composers like Prokofiev, Shostakovich or Stravinsky or Bartók or even Schönberg with his unexpected Sonata form were not nineteenth century epigones, but their necessary predecessors. The new avant-garde has also in this case clarified that the historic one, its role of aperture and propositioning even when it seemed to exhaust a cycle, a phase, an instrument. However, perhaps more than anything else, it was the pianists who counted”. [Pestalozza 1985]

structuralism coincided with the novelty of stereo‑recording. The differences in the Intermezzo performances of Julius Katchen (Decca), Artur Rubinstein (RCA), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon), Vladimir Horowitz (Columbia) and Sviatoslav Richter [1964] mainly stem from the dynamic touch on the four‑note cell which make different every time its relationship with the triadic arpeggios. The same is true for the inverted imitations assigned to the left hand, nearly spasmodic in the recordings of Glenn Gould and David Bar‑Ilan.


      By rethinking such topics, mutual relationships occur between my analysis of the piece and the triple recordings [Bianchi 2021c, 2022b and 2022c]. The very differences between the three performances have to do with features demonstrated by the analysis. My first approach to the score at the piano conveyed an ‘implied’ or ‘intuitive’ analysis [Rink 2007, 7] which subsequently affected the more systematic [Bianchi 2023] based on the Formenlehre and on Schenkerian reductions critically reconsidered. Given my study of the motivic treatment in section A, the three performances were directed to make perceptible all the different connections between the melodic two/four‑note sets and the arpeggios.

      These effects can be obtained through slight crescendos and changing touch between fingers of the same hand. Contrasted with the first performance, the second and third ones seek more continuousness throughout Brahms’ texture to make each motif and sentence perceived in a harmonic way. By this term I address both its triadic meaning (connection melody‑arpeggios) and its ‘harmonious’ sense – a motivic‑chain which lulls pain. As Brahms’ three Intermezzos op. 117 are Songs without words, he labeled them Wiegenlieder meiner Schmerzen (“Lullabies of my sorrows”). This is confirmed by Johann Gottfried Herder’s lines quoted at the beginning of the first piece: “Schlaf sanft mein Kind, schlaf sanft und schön! / Mich dauert’s sehr, dich weinen sehn…” (“Sleep, sleep my child, in sweet repose, It grieves me so to see thee weep”). Accordingly, the crescendo and the emphasis on the melodic notes are exploited to produce the most continuity between the last note of the arpeggio in the left hand and the first dyad in the right (ex. 2).

Ex. 2

      I have been searching for such a unifying motion‑crescendo through my fingers, but also through the rotation of wrists and forearms [Sándor 1981, 79‑88]. In this way, the melodic dyads can arise from the arpeggios. At the same time, the rotation of left forearm complies the inverted dyad imitation in the lower staff and the dyads in the basses. All in all, this search matches that alignment theorized and systematized by the ‘method’ of F. Matthias Alexander [Davidson – Correia 2007, 126]. Also, the quasi‑imitation between the two arpeggios – in the left and in the right hand respectively – heightens the symbiosis between musical structure, movement and cognition of the pianist [Geeves – Sutton 2014; Bordin – van Els – Hahn – Stabell – Storheim 2021].

      Afterward, such technique is apt to obtain the dynamic fluctuation invoked by Brahms’ motif‑grouping and continuous variation through the whole section A. Specifically, the aural peak of motif 3 invokes a slight dynamic increase both at bb. 2‑3 and 11‑12. Since motif 3 in the second sentence is further varied, each of my performances seek a twofold dynamic differentiation. In contrast to [Bianchi 2021c], both [Bianchi 2022b] and [Bianchi 2022c] reduce the emphasis of motif 3 at bb. 2‑3 to mark the peak B-flat² at 11‑12.

Ex. 3a

    Section B is seemingly based on a second different theme (bb. 22-23 – ex. 3a) which however derives from the basic four‑note cell in A. The main difference is that the basic motif A unfolds through arpeggios and B through chords. The latter then invokes a different technique: not articulation‑rotation but pressure “to be used only instantaneously” [Sándor 1981, 8]. A different touch on the notes of a same hand‑chord – namely the right hand – helps to emphasize the upper four‑melodic notes. Then, a dynamic differentiation in the right hand can also reveal that the phrases at 26‑30 and 34‑38 bring in their upper notes the basic four‑note cell (!!!) superimposed on the middle voice (ex. 3b). In this case, the performance of Richter [1964] stands out as the most valuable demonstration, rather than mine. His performance of this passage sheds light on Brahms’ developing‑variation as motivic overlaps rather than alteration, broadening or enrichment of a same interval‑factor. This also blurs the distinction between the three macro‑section A, B and C.

Ex. 3b

      The difference between my three performances also derives from timing – not just dynamic. The detailed structure of the first sentence is also rendered through a minimal agogic shifting, notwithstanding a fairly homogeneous rhythm during section A. Those passages which mostly invoke time oscillations are at connecting points of the formal outline: 1) the cadence at bb. 8‑9 within section A, which leads to the varied repetition of the first sentence; 2) the conclusion at 21‑22, connecting to section B; 3) the break between the two sentences of section B; 4) the beginning of the development section C; 5) the re‑transition to section A’ 6) the connection to the Coda through a corona. A remarkable difference sounds in [Bianchi 2022c] which shorten the connecting corona between B and C too long in [Bianchi 2022b].

      The unfolding of each sentence too invokes flexible timing. Particularly, those singing melodies that prompt the pianist to play rubato – an acceleration and slowing‑down which is not precisely calculable and sounds like a ‘breathing’. The most prominent singing passage in the Intermezzo is the middle voice at bb. 26‑30 and 34‑38. The last performance seeks a more relaxed pulse than the first two, in order to comply with the written crescendo‑decrescendo, with the indication espressivo and – above all – sostenuto. In [Bianchi 2022c] a more adjusted rubato is also pursued within section A’, starting at bb. 61‑62 with the varied repetition of the sentence (ex. 4). In concurrence with the strongest dynamic climax and extended texture of the piece, the time‑oscillation flows into rubato. To pursue a sense of ‘breathing’, I also tried to make more progressive – and so to speak ‘natural’ – the crescendo until forte (67) and rinforzando (68).

Ex. 4

      Within a performance – as between different performances – time fluctuations and dynamic variances can clarify the music structure according to an organic metaphor well‑known and widespread in fin-de-siècle Europe, when Brahms wrote his last works. Turning back to Schönberg on composition‑analysis‑performance, a comparison with Heinrich Schenker’s opinion on the same topic in light of organicism is indicative. On the one hand, it would be problematic to identify the concept of ‘organic’ with dodecaphony, where coherence derives from ‘structural’ rather than ‘functional’ principles.[4] On the other hand, Schönberg and Schenker agreed on the organic character of tonal music, although identified through different analytical categories and aesthetic standpoints.[5] According to both authors, then, the performance should comply with this character by proceeding from inside the work to make the laws of notation audible. This concept too was part of a broad cultural behaviour in the Austro‑German area [Borio 2020] since Gustav Schelling’s Musikalische Dynamik oder die Lehre vom Vortrage in der Musik, published in 1848.

      In his book on the art of piano performance, Schenker points out that the performer’s hand must play the written lines ‘without lying’, i.e. aiming at an absolute fidelity to the text and the composer’s intentions. He even went further in stating that composers are to be considered the best performers of their own works. Nonetheless, the Austrian theorist advocated an idea of ‘faithful’ timing, but not to the inflexible metronome.

One thing is essential: in a given piece the tension must be maintained from beginning to end. This not by using the meter mechanically to ensure the flow of music; the means of moving a given piece are of internal nature, not superficially metric. The impulse must be continuously renewed from within. [Schenker 2009, 69 (my translation)]

      Schenker supports his view by addressing Brahms’ Allegro comodo from the last movement of the Quartet op. 60. He remarks that there is no absolute concept of this agogic and that the composer himself recurrently changed the indication on the manuscript (initially Presto, then Tempo giusto, then again Un poco presto and finally Allegro comodo). The idea that an indeterminate timing as it cannot be clearly deduced from the score paradoxically determines the organic character of the work is advocated by another famous piano teacher of that time. It was the Russian Heinrich Neuhaus, a

[4] Dodecaphony and serialism are marked by coherence and consequentiality in the set of points – a structural principle – while biological framework implies a hierarchy of the different parts, in their relationship to each other and to the whole – a more functional principle. The latter acts in tonal works of the Classic‑Romantic period [Solie 1984] and could hardly be identified with serial works as these show abstraction from the tonal laws.

[5] This divergence between ‘spiritual vitalism’ (Schenker) and ‘dialectical logic’ (Schönberg) is described in [Borio 2001]. Yet, the latter in his general conception of organic form sometimes establishes analogies with the living organisms [Schönberg 1912].

well‑known teacher at the Moscow Conservatory and also a concert performer. His book The Art of Piano Playing was first published in 1958, when he was 70 years old. As his thoughts about time, rhythm and rubato belong to the early 20th century, they show similarities with Schönberg’s and Schenker’s theories in the light of the very organicistic metaphor.

The rhythm of a musical composition is frequently – and not without reason – compared with the pulse of a living organism. Not to the swinging of a pendulum, or the ticking of a clock or the beat of a metronome (all this is meter not rhythm) but to such phenomena as pulse, breathing, the waves of the sea, the swaying of a wheat field […] the pulse of a healthy person is regular, but accelerates or decelerates under the stress of a physical or psychological experience. The same applies to music […] One of the requirement of a ‘healthy’ rhythm is that the total of accelerations and decelerations, and indeed of total rhythmic changes in general throughout the work, should be equal to a constant so that the arithmetic mean of the rhythm […] should also be equal and constant to the basic meter duration […] I have frequently had occasion to tell my pupils when confronted by a rubato that rubare is the Italian for stealing and if you steal time without returning it soon after, you are a thief; if you first accelerate the tempo, you must subsequently slow down, remain an honest man, restore balance and harmony. [Neuhaus 1973, 30‑31]

      The analytical method of Sergej Skrebkov [1958] is a further confirmation of the analogies between this perspective and those of Schönberg and Schenker. Neuhaus supports his organic idea of rhythm by quoting Skrebkov, who statistically measured Skrjabin’s performance of his own Poem op. 32 and realized that the arithmetic mean of timing remained identical to the initial metronome indication despite the changes in tempo, even rubato.[5]

     On the one hand, post‑structural thinkers have challenged the organic idea of music work – and organicism as philosophic position in general. On the other, the concept of differentiation‑integration has been described as a law of biology inviting transfer to art: “manifold distinction of the parts of a whole and their closer functional cohesion as two aspects of the same development which engage and complement each other” [Dahlhaus 1983, 31‑32]. As such, it can always be invoked even for those performances so differentiated that shows unexpected features of the score [Pogorelich 2001]

[5] Sergej Sergeevič Skrebkov (Moscow 1906‑1967) was a scholar of physics and mathematics and one of the leading theorists of Soviet musicology. He taught at the Moscow Conservatory from 1932 until his death [Bėlza – Dubravskaya 2001]. He continued the studies on polyphony of his teacher, Nikolaj Garbuzov. Skrebkov was also interested in the ‘biometric research’ inaugurated by Leonid Sabaneev during the 1920s at the State Academy of Art and Sciences GAKhN (Gosudarstvennaya akademiya khudožestvennykh nauk [Государственная академия художественных наук]) founded in Moscow and later moved to Leningrad. The ‘biometric method’ was an attempt to scientifically calculate the recurring elements of a piece, and the rhythmic perception was part of that approach [Carpenter 1988, 551‑569]. Skrebkov’s main theoretical contributions in his lifetime found their way into an extensive book Analysis of Musical Works [Skrebkov 1958].

probably not foreseen by the composer himself [Ingarden 1989, 61].[6]

      Beyond the cultural implication of such dialectic, what changes every time and determine the specificity of a piano performance is the degree of differentiation and integration to which the performer leads the written texture by fulfilling the places of indeterminacy in dynamic and timing.

      And finally, timbre. In addition to dynamics and agogic, a third factor which affects the piano performance and fills the place of indeterminacy is the use of damper‑sustaining and soft pedal (una corda). Another characteristic of my third recording [Bianchi 2022c] contrasted with [Bianchi 2021c] and [2022b] is that appoggiatura‑chords at the end of section C (bb. 46‑48) are lightened through the soft pedal according to the pianissimo indication (ex. 5). At other connecting point of the formal outline, the piano or pianissimo after the decrescendo is also obtained through the soft pedal.

Ex. 5

      Within section B at b. 26 and 34, in [Bianchi 2022c] – unlike [Bianchi 2021c] and [2022b] – the semiquaver‑rests under the chord‑appoggiaturas at the end of the phrase are made audible trough a

[6] The outlandish performance of Beethoven’s Tempest op. 31 no. 2 – which Ivo Pogorelich most probably learned with the guidance of Alice Kezerazde – prompted Piero Rattalino to legitimize it as a revealing aural experience on the basis of Dahlhaus’ very principle of differentiation and integration [Rattalino 1990, 420‑421]. Unfortunately, Pogorelich never recorded his performance on vinyl nor CD. A live recording in Utrecht 2001 is available on YouTube [Pogorelich 2001].

different use of the sustaining pedal (ex. 6). The last two bi‑chords in the right hand respectively descending (26) and ascending (34) sound detached from the triadic accompaniment

Ex. 6

      Finally, a careful use of the damper‑sustaining pedal in the last cadence of the piece enhances with greater clarity the tonic harmony B-flat – previously inaudible – in its root position. Not by chance, the final statement of the root‑tonic is contrasted with the structural role played by the first‑inversion chords from the beginning throughout the piece. Such strategy can be clearly seen in the bass line of a Schenkerian reduction [Smith 1997, 211].

Ex. 7 [reproduced with permission © Peter H. Smith]

      To emphasize the final basic harmony, in [Bianchi 2022c] the preceding rest in the left hand (b. 82) is made audible (ex. 8) unlike [Bianchi 2021c] and [2022b], and unlike all the well‑known performances of the Intermezzo. I raise the damper‑sustaining pedal in concurrence with the semiquaver‑rest which interjects the V‑I motion in the bass. At the same time, the right hand maintains the leading triad Ef‑A‑C which is prolonged through the next bar as a ritardo (delay) over the tonic root.

Ex. 8

      Walter Piston [1989, 123] describes the whole passage as one of the most striking cases of delay in 19th century harmony. Schönberg would have certainly defined the rest as subcutaneous beauty. The composer placed this rest with the obvious intent to emphasize the hitherto hidden tonic‑root. This is the final step of a developing variation which exploits the appoggiatura as a basic means throughout the piece. From the very outset, the double‑dyad implies a ‘dormant’ sense of appoggiatura. It unfolds as real harmonic delay in the cadences at bb. 8‑9 and 21‑22 and then in section B – the opening motif and closing phrases. The motivic fragmentation within section C leads the appoggiatura‑delay to an extreme (chord progression at 46‑48), and finally the Coda grows on a concentration of this means taken from B. The Bassbrechung in ex. 7 reveals the delay as a structural feature. The last cadence coincides with the resolution at a deep level of the relationship between the first‑inversion harmonies and the rooted tonic.

      Also contributing to this resolution is the texture of the final triad, arranged first in a large arpeggio and then as a chord to the ends of the keyboard. The B-flat bass after the rest consists in the penultimate note at the low (!) end. The ensuing arpeggio toward the high end unfolds one of the most extensive and complete minor triads in all the piano literature. Furthermore, although the concluding chord still grants a privileged position to the D-flat (left hand), the arpeggio ends with two final octaves F-Bb that reaffirm an audible sensation of perfect cadence. In [Bianchi 2022c], the greatest possible depth is sought, not only by highlighting the rest, but also through dynamics and agogic. While the soft pedal is inserted from the beginning of the arpeggio, the decrescendo toward the pianissimo is achieved through a variation of touch. The final two octaves are further restrained as part of a general rallentando.

      In [Bianchi 2022c], the performance also intends to highlight the poetic significance of the cadence. Indeed, it is through the unheard final harmony that the piece in its aural experience is fully revealed as the “Lullabies of sorrows”. In Brahms’s Intermezzo op. 118 no. 1, a highly similar strategy led Edward Cone [1977] to develop a narratological perspective that interprets as a detective story the concealment of the tonic which is affirmed only at the end. The [Bianchi 2022c] rendition fits into this critical strand, also considering the ambiguous boundary, indeed, that Cone establishes between reading-analysis of the score, listening and performance.

      On the one hand, my analyses and historical-critical reflections are focused on the piano literature with a constant emphasis on the performances and profiles of several great pianists (specifically my fellow-countryman, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli [Bianchi 2005; 2015]). On the other hand, performances available on YouTube testify feedback between theory and piano practice as in the case of this Intermezzo, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 78 [Bianchi 2020a] and Franco Margola’s Sonata [Bianchi 2020b; 2021a; 2021b; 2022d]. Philological insights are offered on scores edited by Alfredo Casella [Bianchi 2020a] and Carlo Zecchi [Bianchi 2022a]. Personal research on time and dynamic in [Bianchi 2020e] and [2020f] respectively Mozart K 330 and Bach BWV 871. The triple recording of Brahms’ Intermezzo finds its meaning not just in the execution – different each time – but also in a more perfect piano tuning. That of [Bianchi 2022b] beautifies some aural peak such as the B-flat² at bb. 11‑12.[7] These performances were recorded at the Auditorium del Polo culturale diocesano in Brescia to obtain a less percussive piano sound than many of the versions available online, in which some frequencies are lost and the hammer‑sound remains uncovered.[8]

[7] To hear a glimpse of how vividly that B-flat resonates inside the Auditorium, you can listen to the recording of Schumann’s Romanza op. 32 no. 3 in the middle section at b. 45 [Bianchi 2022a, at 1’48”].

[8] This was also a constant worry of Michelangeli. Given his very subtle sense of harmony – which led him to passionately harmonize the so-called SAT (cori di montagna, mountain choirs) although he had not conducted composition studies [Facchinetti 2008, 14] – he was constantly trying to soften the timbre of the struck strings through peculiar tuning techniques and preparation of the mechanics [Passadori 2005]. The pianist also resorted to ‘external’ expedients such as the one adopted when recording the first book of Debussy’s Preludes: positioning his piano next to a second piano, open and with the strings lowered, in order to achieve an ‘aeolian harp’ effect [Garben 2004, 77-78]. Allegedly, Michelangeli tried the same Steinway 149 63-289 Gran Coda owned by the Polo culturale diocesano that I used for the three recordings of the Intermezzo.


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Abstract. This article is the other side of I blend my own performance of Brahms’ Intermezzo op. 117 no. 2 (recorded in three slightly different versions) with my analysis of the very piece based both on Schönberg’s concept of ‘developing variation’ and a Schenker‑like approach. The mutual relationship between the analysis and the triple recording takes into account the historic performances of the Intermezzo, as well as Schönberg’s and Schenker’s ideas about the relationship between composition, notation and performance. Beethoven’s oeuvre plays a basic role both in Schönberg’s concept of ‘developing variation’ and his ideas about performance, then in Brahms’s organic style and Schenker’s writings.

I wish to thank Antonio Grande, Egidio Pozzi and Georges Piriou for their helpful collaboration.

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