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Discovering Brahms in miniature proves to be a wee treat

Acertain quality in Brahms's music has occupied me recently.

Many music lovers and ardent fans of Brahms might recognise it. That quality is of the massive feeling to much of the music. I don't mean epic, in the sense that Mahler's music is epic. I mean massive more in the sense of its breadth, its spaciousness, its textural depth and its sheer solidity. Yes, I know there are myriad moments of translucence and intimacy in the music, but that's not the perspective under consideration today.

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There's a bigness and a burliness to much of Brahms's music, found in works across the spectrum of his compositions. That bigness and burliness derive from the architecture of his music, its texture, its orchestration, its sense of scale, its emotional depth, its muscular intellectualism and just about every feature of his music in combination. Think of the dark opening of the First Symphony, or the unstoppable accumulation in the finale of the Fourth Symphony. Think of the weight and power throughout the First Piano Concerto, where the sheer scale and solidity of the music can be overwhelming.

And it's not just the orchestral works: listen to his piano sonatas which, at moments, can be almost shocking in their force, weight and power; as too are the piano trios and string sextets. And think also of the great German Requiem, where even the most beautiful and intimate pages have this "bigness" in their DNA, to say nothing of the inexorable weight and push of the second movement, Selig Sind, as it proceeds through that relentless crescendo which culminates in the volcanic eruption of sound as chorus and orchestra pile into the second paragraph, as it were.

So, massive, big, spacious, breadth, weight, force, power - do you recognise and identify any or all of these elements in Brahms? Of course we all listen in different ways and have different reactions to, and perspectives on, what we hear. But if you do agree with any of that, you will hear it everywhere in his music. Which leads me to the "Ah, but" question, and here it comes: but do you know about Brahms the miniaturist? Eh? Miniaturist? Yeah, quite. I'm always going on about music that I should probably know, which might be familiar to others, but of which I am in complete ignorance. My sense of discovery appears not to fade with the passing of time.

Back in January, I was working through a CD to write up for the Sunday Herald's weekly album review section. The work under scrutiny was a new piano duo recording of Stravinsky's Petrushka (Bax & Chung Duo, Signum Classics). I wasn't even looking for Brahms. I did notice there was a Brahms filler on the CD, but the priority was to get Petrushka written up; so I set the Brahms aside and came back to it later, in some curiosity. The Brahms was titled 16 Waltzes opus 39. They were written for piano duo in 1865 and they are tiny pieces, genuine miniatures. The longest is about two minutes, many of them run at less than a minute, and one of them, number 10, is no longer than 30 seconds. They are beautiful and charming, and I'm pretty sure I'd never heard them.

The first performance was in 1866, given by Clara Schumann and Albert Dietrich. They were a huge success. Brahms arranged them for a single pianist. He played that version himself in Hamburg. He also arranged two other versions of them: one simple, one difficult for more able pianists. All these versions were published at the same time. They had great currency and sold like hotcakes, bringing to Brahms significant commercial success. Incredibly, a huge number of other arrangements of the waltzes were spawned, including separate versions for string quintet, four saxophones, harmonium, two mandolins and, get this, two banjos!

Forgive me if the rest of the world is laughing because they know all this: it's a discovery to me, and I'm tickled pink with it. They are fabulous wee pieces, and not without depth.

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