BRAHMS: FANTASIES, INTERMEZZOS; HAYDN VARIATIONS
CHRISTOPHER ATZINGER, piano
KATHRYN ANANDA-OWENS, piano
“[In the Op.116] Atzinger is at his best, weaving a lovely tapestry of sound that lingers long in the mind.”
Robert Anderson, Music & Vision [May 2012]
"[Op.117 is] beautifully judged by Atzinger... In Op.116 he nails the nobility of the G minor's central section... and is light on his feet for the E minor Intermezzo's mercurial playfulness..."
[ * * * * ] Paul Riley, BBC Music [February 2011]
"an uncommonly fine release... I was doubly aware of the hundreds, no thousands of little rhythmic adjustments—agogic accents, rubato, and the like—that Atzinger brings to the music. He has fantastic control of rhythm in his shaping of phrases, and his ability to bring a hidden melody to the foreground is exemplary... His attention to detail is remarkable, but the warm, romantic line is never lost. All the pieces are paced very well, and the piano sound is excellent. Atzinger is a pianist to watch. [The] Haydn Variations [are] expertly played by Atzinger and Ananda-Owens. This is a fine release in every way. Atzinger is terrific and definitely recommended."
American Record Guide [January/February 2011]
"Christopher Atzinger's...playing and the sound he produces are spellbinding... Atzinger penetrates beyond the exterior of lovelorn loneliness that stands as a facade to much of Brahms’s music, finding on a deeper level something not quite so sympathetic or easy to relate to, a kind of distancing from the world of the living. This is exceptionally beautiful playing and these are exceptionally insightful performances... very warm, congenial performance and very supple playing."
Dubins, Fanfare [January/February 2011]
"Atzinger plays Op.116 and Op.117 with just the right combination of dreaminess and rhythmic accuracy... Joined by Kathryn Ananda-Owens, he delivers an excellent performance of Brahms' Haydn Variations... A sleeper of a disc."
Turok's Choice, Issue No.228 [January 2011]
"American pianist Christopher Atzinger displays a sensitive penchant for late Brahms, a hearty vigor without mannerism that captures the intense but often emotionally forlorn aspects of the composer’s ethos."
Gary Lemco, Audiophile Audition [October 2010]
"American pianist Christopher Atzinger shows a real zest for Brahms’ late piano pieces in this fine new MSR release that includes the 7 Fantasias, Op.116 and the 3 Intermezzi, Op.117. He shows himself an adept at bringing out Brahms’ wonderfully inventiveness and sublime lyricism, all with an utter naturalness that belies their sophistication and their technical difficulty... The emphasis here is on deft characterization and attention to purely pianistic values, and here Atzinger shines... Another American pianist, Kathryn Ananda-Owens, joins Atzinger in the concluding work, Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Brahms was allegedly concerned that this duo-piano version of his work would be overshadowed by the orchestral version, though he needn’t have worried. As Atzinger and Ananda-Owens demonstrate, there is plenty of pure excitement in the way the two pianos play against each other, making this work a crown jewel in a relatively small repertoire but one studded with a number of gems. Alternating charm and vivacity, the duo pianos course through the set of eight variations on a chorale theme like a pair of trick ponies, galloping through Variation 5, marked “Poco presto.” The finale is marked by utterly delicious cross rhythms and syncopations, zestful fun that no orchestral transcription could hope to match."
Phil Muse, Audio Society of Atlanta [July 2010]
PROGRAM NOTESFor Johannes Brahms, 1892-1893 was a productive period for piano compositions, as he completed Opp.117, 118, and 119 in addition to the Sieben Fantasien that compose Op. 116. While the seven fantasies were originally published in two sets, a group of three and another of four, the pieces collectively balance individuality with large-scale cohesion. The robust Capriccio in D minor opens the composition, featuring frequent octaves which traverse various registers of the keyboard. This musical journey takes the listener through both expected and unanticipated key areas before finally offering a declamatory return to the home key of D minor. In contrast, the Intermezzo in A minor (No.2) offers a meditative musical offering, focusing on the rise and fall of melodically embedded half notes for purposes of tension and release. The Capriccio in G minor (No.3) has similarities to the final capriccio that concludes the work. In both cases, author Michael Musgrave notes that Brahms’ choice of melodic intervals is important, as each utilizes diminished seventh chords prefaced by falling thirds. This construct results in increased harmonic tension yielding a dramatic conclusion to each piece. The fourth, fifth and sixth pieces in the set are all Intermezzi based on the E major/minor tonal area, although No. 4 was originally titled Notturno. Both the fourth and sixth are poetic and tranquil in character while the short Intermezzo in E minor (No. 5) offers a brief, yet playful, change of pace. Its compound duple meter coupled with frequent pauses on the second and fifth beats creates a gentle rocking sensation. Thus, through the course of Opus 116, Brahms balances exquisite intimacy with impassioned fervor - two qualities which are found throughout his late piano works.
Op. 117 is the shortest of the late piano works and the only one that exclusively uses Intermezzo as the title for each piece. This autumnal collection displays many traditional characteristics of Brahms’ piano writing, including lush harmonies and sharply focused formal structures, combined with an intense sincerity and expression throughout. Additionally, the lack of technical fireworks and bravura coincides with Brahms’ own description of the pieces as “three cradle songs for my sorrows”. The collection therefore makes a strong introspective statement, offering both pianist and listener the opportunity for personal reflection.
Following a ten year break, Brahms resumed composing theme-and-variation sets in the summer of 1873 with his Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn. While initially scored for two pianos, he also envisioned an orchestral version of the piece, which author Jan Swafford points out became “the first freestanding orchestral variations in history”. To suggest and maintain equality, Brahms decided that the two versions should share the same opus number (Op. 56a/b). Nevertheless, written correspondence shows that Brahms still feared the piano version would lose stature by being deemed a mere ‘arrangement’. He would be pleased that it remains a pillar of the duo-piano literature to this day. The opening theme, known as the Chorale St. Antoni, has been commonly attributed to Haydn, though recent scholarship suggests otherwise. The opening thematic material features a non-traditional fivebar phrase structure; a trait which reemerges in the Finale as a recurring bass pattern that passes between the two pianos. In contrast, the eight variations include such diverse offerings as a rapid scherzo in 6/8 time (No. 5) and a tender siciliano (No. 7). Many scholars believe the work marks a turning point in Brahms’s compositional development, highlighted by what Donald McCorkle calls a transition from an “impressionable young Romantic to maturity as a classicist Romanticist”.
Lauded in Gramophone for his “abundant energy, powerful fingers, big sound, and natural musicality,” and praised by the San Francisco Chronicle for his “fervency and panache,” American pianist Christopher Atzinger is celebrated for insightful performances and a reputation for excellence. He has performed extensively throughout the United States and Europe, highlighted by recital performances at Carnegie Hall (New York), Salle Cortot (Paris), St. Martin-in-the-Fields (London), National Concert Hall (Dublin), American Academy (Rome), Liszt Museum (Budapest), Barocco Cultural Arts (Valletta), the Smithsonian Gallery of American Art and the Phillips Collection (Washington), and the Dame Myra Hess Series (Chicago). Festival appearances include the Banff International Keyboard Festival, Brevard Music Festival, Bridge Chamber Music Festival, and the Chautauqua Institution.
Atzinger is a medalist of the New Orleans, San Antonio, Cincinnati, Shreveport and Seattle international piano competitions. He is also winner of the National Federation of Music Clubs Artist Competition and the Simone Belsky Piano Competition, as well as the Premio Città di Ispica prize at the IBLA Grand Prize Competition in Italy. Additionally, he is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Theodore Presser Foundation, Foundation La Gesse, American Composers Forum and Joyce Dutka Arts Foundation. Most recently, he was awarded a large McKnight Fellowship for Performing Artists.
Christopher Atzinger’s live performances have aired on radio stations WFMT-Chicago, WJR-Detroit, WXEL-South Florida, KPAC-San Antonio, WUOL-Louisville, and WGTE-Toledo and on Kansas, South Dakota, and New England Public Radio, along with television stations in Chicago and Cincinnati. His recordings have also been featured on WQXR-New York, WGBH-Boston, Minnesota Public Radio, and nationally on American Public Media’s Performance Today. As guest soloist, he has appeared with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, North Carolina’s Brevard Repertory Orchestra and the symphony orchestras of Shreveport, Springfield (MA), Jackson (MI) and St. Olaf, under the batons of Klauspeter Seibel, Steven Smith, Dennis Simons, Kevin Rhodes, Stephen Osmond, Mischa Santora, and Steven Amundson.
Atzinger’s discography includes three highly praised albums released on the MSR Classics label – a debut solo recording of Bach, Beethoven, Barber and Fritze; and all-Brahms album; and “American Lyricism” featuring works by Christopher Theofanidis, Richard Danielpour, Monica Houghton, Pierre Jalbert, and Justin Merrit. He has also recorded works of Judith Lang Zaimont for Naxos and music of Amy Beach for Centaur Records.
Also having interests in collaborative music, Atzinger has performed with violinist Igor Yuzefovich (concertmaster, Singapore Symphony), cellists Douglas Harvey (principal, Austin Symphony), and Michael Kannen (Peabody Conservatory); clarinetist Jun Qian (Baylor Univ); sopranos Kelly Kaduce, Mary Wilson, and Brenda Nicole Atzinger; pianists Gloria Reimer (Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia-Rome) and Kathryn Ananda-Owens (St. Olaf College); and several members of the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. In addition to being a winner of the Sydney Wright Memorial Collaborative Piano Competition, he has also collaborated with the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Music Company.
A Michigan native, Christopher began piano lessons at age six. He went on to earn degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and University of Michigan, and the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in piano performance from the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University. Among his principal teachers he counts Julian Martin, Robert McDonald, Anton Nel, David Renner and Carolyn Lipp. Additional keyboard studies were undertaken with Timothy Lovelace, Edward Parmentier and Penelope Crawford. A dedicated teacher and coach himself, Dr. Atzinger taught at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, prior to joining the St. Olaf College music faculty in 2005 where he is currently an Associate Professor of Music. He has also lectured at The Juilliard School and Berklee College of Music, and conducted master classes throughout the United States.
[ christopheratzinger.com ]
PROGRAMJohannes Brahms (1833-1897)
7 FANTASIES, Op. 116
Capriccio in D minor (Presto energico)
Intermezzo in A minor (Andante)
Capriccio in G minor (Allegro passionato)
Intermezzo in E major (Adagio)
Intermezzo in E minor (Andante con grazia ed intimissimo sentimento)
Intermezzo in E major (Andantino teneramente)
Capriccio in D minor (Allegro agitato)
3 INTERMEZZOS, Op. 117
Intermezzo in E-flat major (Andante moderato)
Intermezzo in B-flat minor (Andante non troppo e con molto espressione)
Intermezzo in C-sharp minor (Andante con moto)
HAYDN VARIATIONS, Op. 56b for 2 Pianos in B-flat major “St.Anthony Variations”
Chorale St. Antoni: Andante
Variation 1: Andante con moto
Variation 2: Vivace
Variation 3: Con moto
Variation 4: Andante
Variation 5: Poco presto
Variation 6: Vivace
Variation 7: Grazioso
Variation 8: Poco presto