Friday, June 17, 2011

A Lullaby and Sweet Consolation; Brahms, Op. 117 No. 1

Lullabies are as much for those who sing them as for those who will sleep.

Brahms is known for a lullaby; the Wiegenlied: Guten Abend, gute Nacht, Op. 49, No. 4, but the first intermezzo of the Op. 117 collection is a lullaby every bit as entrancing. It is a song without words, written for piano alone. Sort of.

Brahms prefaced his score with a poetic epigraph derived from "Lady Anne Bothwell's Lament" in Herder's Volkslieder:

Schlaf sanft mein Kind, schlaf sanft und Schön! (Sleep soft my child, sleep soft and lovely!)
Mich dauert's sehr, dich weinen sehn. (I feel sadness when you weep)

The translation upon which Brahms based his epigraph altered the original which read: Baloo, my boy, lie still and sleep...It grieves me sore to hear thee weep... If thou'lt be silent I'll be glad...Thy moaning makes my heart full sad...Baloo, my boy, thy mother's joy...Thy father bred me great annoy...Baloo, baloo, baloo, baloo...baloo, baloo, lu-li-li-lu.



Hélène Grimaud has a deep understanding of the poetry in this music. She allows the tune to rock gently between the octaves in the first phrase, pulling the lines apart in richness and then weaving them back toward a cadence.

All three works in this opus balance parallel phrases. They are all songs that speak in echos. And after the parallel phrase of this lullaby a quiet but jarring passage in octaves [1:10], senza pedal, takes us to a darker place in the tonic minor.

The central section, marked Più Adagio [1:32], moves in syncopation. We hear a rhythmic pattern: long-long-short pull against our sense of the meter. It is as obsessive as quiet chanting. The return of the lullaby [2:50] is decorated with glorious surprises characteristic of Brahms.

When those we love need consolation we instinctively think of lullabies. When we need consolation it is waiting here, in E-flat major.

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