LENOX — For the first of his series of Tanglewood recitals surveying the solo piano music of Johannes Brahms, the Bavarian pianist Gerhard Oppitz programmed the composer’s earliest published piano work, the Opus 4 Scherzo, and his final one, the four pieces of Opus 119.
The biographical contrast belied the works’ similarities. Both the Scherzo and the final Rhapsody of Opus 119 — not to mention the first of the two Opus 79 Rhapsodies, which came between — revealed shared quirks: sharply ornamented melodies, firework-burst motives repeated up and down the keyboard, lyrical ideas within two-handed accompaniments. Lined up side by side, they portrayed a composer who decided on a vision early, then spent his life pursuing it.
They also displayed Brahms’s penchant for formal design and musical arc. It’s repertoire that lends itself to architectural interpretation, and Oppitz proved a thoroughly architectural pianist. In the formidable 40-minute exercise of the Piano Sonata No. 3, the last of Brahms’s sonatas, one could hear such qualities: an organ-like touch, both in its depth and in the sense of extra definition around each attack and release; a rubato derived from individually emphasized notes, expressively delayed or anticipated just off the beat; an expansive palette deliberately restricted from section to section, the music parsed into clear, primary-color layers.
Oppitz relished the sonata’s slowly building structure — the climax of the slower, lyrical Andante was actually louder than the opening movement’s clanging announcements — and its stately parade of sectional contrasts. But the sonata, written when Brahms was 20, also shows him as a young man in a hurry, especially in the Finale, the formal outlines filled in with increasingly extravagant pianistic whims.
The sonata’s mercurial Intermezzo, too, points the way toward Brahms’s later fascination with piano miniatures. Oppitz made the Opus 79 Rhapsodies expansive and impressive, the narrative thread thoughtfully stretched, the full textures given expressive muscle. The Opus 119 pieces felt more mysterious, the music ducking around corners, lingering in unexpected places. But, in the context and the playing, they also seemed very much of a piece with the rest of Brahms’s output, just more direct: the forms still there, if not comfortingly rounded off, the ideas still similar, but more terse, more balanced off each other. Brahms’s concept of music was revealed, in the end, through distillation.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.