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Brahms the Progressive: Brahms | Webern | Berg

Odradek - Artwork

For acclaimed pianist Pina Napolitano, there is no better way of looking at art and history than through the lens of inverted time, from the present to the past. This seems to be what Schoenberg invites us to do in his essay, Brahms the Progressive, in which Brahms, often considered a musical “conservative”, becomes instead the father of modernism. This provides the essence of this album: traversing time in two directions, looking at Brahms from the future of the modern Viennese, and vice versa, looking at the Second Viennese School from the past of Brahmsian romanticism.

For Pina Napolitano there are romantic echoes in the works of the Second Viennese School; an enormous expressive force distilled and compressed, all the way up to Webern’s rarefied language where even the silences are charged with music and significance. And on the other hand she has always perceived Brahms’ music as a magic prism, in which an entire musical past (encompassing Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann…) merges together, before breaking off into rivulets that will give birth to 20th-century music.

We hear on this album Berg’s Op.1 Sonata, in which there is an intricate network of motivic relations, rhythmic flexibility and metrical ambiguity, the music unfolding with the sort of fluidity and connectedness which are hallmarks of Brahms’ style. Harmonically, the sonata begins and ends in B minor, but includes a range of non-tonal harmonies. Webern’s Satz (1906) was written not long after he had begun to take lessons with Schoenberg, but the piece shows clearly how Webern’s music grew out of the 19th century. Written in 1924, Webern’s Kinderstück is his earliest complete piece using 12-note serialism, but it is with his Variations, Op. 27 (1936) that we hear a more typically sophisticated serial technique from Webern.

If Webern’s Op. 27 looks back to Brahms in its sense of motivic connectedness, it is perhaps possible to see the opening Intermezzo of Brahms’ Op. 119 looking forward to Webern. Both Opp. 118 and 119 were written in 1893 and are among Brahms’ final works. Brahms gives the sets the title of Klavierstücke – which Schoenberg would use later for his own works for solo piano.

Italian pianist Pina Napolitano made a splash with her debut CD in 2012: Norman Lebrecht featured her recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s complete piano works as his CD of the Week, shortlisting it for his Sinfini Music Album of the Year; Guy Rickards in International Piano Magazine called the CD “outstanding”, citing the “tensile strength to her playing that is distinctly hers”, and Calum MacDonald in BBC Music Magazine gave it five stars for its “rare penetration, understanding, grace and elegance.”


“These seven beautifully played works seek to illustrate the titular essay by Schoenberg… The segue from [Webern’s] Variations back into the tonal paradise of late Brahms is poignant.”

Sunday Times
“Napolitano’s touch, which is at once forceful and seductive, helps bind everything together on this very enjoyable disc.”

BBC Music Magazine, Michael Church
“Lettura solida e tenera (Brahms, per intenderci), lucida ed emotiva quella dell’interprete campana, il che denota come la sua scelta esecutiva sia frutto di una ricerca che affonda le sue radici non solo su una concezione empatica in chiave musicologica, ma anche e soprattutto attraverso un palpito interiore attraverso il quale riconoscersi pienamente nella stessa materia interpretativa.”

Music Voice
“Any possibility of intellectualism is completely absent in Pina Napolitano. Her playing leads us to believe that we don’t need to look to previous versions to understand these pieces but rather with her mix of gentle purity and respectful measure they come to us in that unreserved perfect beauty dwelling within them.”

“…the sensitivity of the performer is certainly outstanding. Pina is a venerably qualified player.”

Record Geijutsu Award
“In the hands of the Italian pianist, the deep Brahmsian affinities of Berg and Webern feel neither forced nor artificial. In the crepuscular Opus 118 and 119… Napolitano focuses especially on highlighting the entanglement of writing, neither completely contrapuntal nor fully harmonic. Never didactic, the performer’s work on articulation perfectly highlights this “three-dimensional” rhetoric”

Diapason 5 Diapason
“Superbly produced, recorded and with carefully considered repertoire, this is a disc of intense, infinitely rewarding music… This is great Brahms, up there with Gilels.”

International Piano Five Stars
“Pina Napolitano’s aerial playing, especially noticeable in Berg’s sonata No. 1, works wonders… Through this disc, the pianist tells us that the past never dies. And we can only agree…”

“In the compositions by Johannes Brahms, echoes of the past and reflections on modernity are at once conservative in form and progressive in style.”

“incredible sensitivity, understanding, elegant and expressive playing…”

“Pina Napolitano lets us experience sensually that there is a continuity between Brahms and the Second Viennese School”

“an intriguing playlist… Listen to how the Variations’ final bars smoothly slip into those fragile descending arpeggios at the outset of Brahms’s Op 119 group – what a magical transition!… She revels in the Variations’ distinct dynamic plateaus and makes the composer’s different accentuations clearly distinct… The pianist shapes the Berg Sonata’s introspective writing into expansive arcs…”

“These seven beautifully played works seek to illustrate the titular essay by Schoenberg… The segue from his Op 27 Variations back into the tonal paradise of late Brahms is poignant.”

Sunday Times
“…her free-flowing, plain recorded playing of the music of both styles is very vivid.”

“This is a fascinating programme of solo piano music by Brahms, Berg and Webern from Pina Napolitano”

Music Web International
“A masterful disc, free of Nordic fog or serial irritation, where the fullness of timbres is matched only by the mastery of musical conception.”

Musique Classique & Co
“A wonderful recording, no, thrilling… These musical memories seem to spring from Pina Napolitano’s fingers…”

Dino Villatico