I have never heard someone so eloquently and concisely express sentiment as Brahms. There is never any mistaking what he feels – longing, contemplation, peace, joy, passion, sadness, tenderness. Especially tenderness. Perhaps this clarity is a result of his reservation in public life.
(I have a recording of Gilels playing Op. 116 that is just superb. Not just the wide brushstrokes of mood, but he captures the little twists and turns of thought. It’s the kind of captivation where I can’t even try to think of anything else.)
Op. 76 seems to be less heavy than Op. 116, which I suppose is logical. The Brahms I am most familiar with is Opp. 116-119 and the clarinet pieces (114 and 115) – later stuff, heavy, darker. Much of it tends to have a reminiscent quality. Op. 76 seems to have more clarity – though it has the seriousness of the later works, it doesn’t look back quite as much and still lives in the present.
When visiting the musician’s plot in the Central Cemetery in Vienna, I stopped by Brahms’s grave. Someone had given his statue a sunflower. And I thought, that’s gotta be the most incongruous thing I’ve ever seen. To this day it puzzles me. Maybe they were trying to impart hope? Or maybe it’s that little reflection of tenderness found in his later pieces, saying no, it’s not all bad.