Classical Music Review | Finding Solace in Brahms: Jarred Dunn’s Brahms in Solitude (by Meg Freer)

A guest post by Meg Freer

Classical Music Review
Finding Solace in Brahms:
Jarred Dunn’s Brahms in Solitude

If you are in the mood to find a calm, introspective space where Brahms’s piano music can help you settle into your own feelings – perhaps those of fear, doubt, sorrow, or insecurity – please do listen to Brahms in Solitude, the new album from Montreal pianist Jarred Dunn. Mr. Dunn has programmed the slower and more contemplative Brahms Intermezzi, allowing us to “ponder for the sake of pondering.” Try listening to the eleven pieces in the order presented on the album; it is a well-planned trajectory through this poetic music. Mr. Dunn is a Brahms natural. 

We often think of Chopin as the poet of the piano, and Mr. Dunn has given us Chopin as poetry, on stage and in his previous album. In Brahms in Solitude, Dunn shows us that Brahms too expresses poetry in music, in that each piece contains deep meaning in a relatively concise package. 

The album opens with three pieces from Klavierstücke Op. 118 – perhaps the most well-known opus of Brahms’s late piano music – which perfectly illustrate this concept. Mr. Dunn gives us a taste of Brahms’s meditative styles: first, the dramatic and emotional Intermezzo in A Minor; then the lyrical Intermezzo in A Major (the Brahms Intermezzo), beautifully played with interior lines of counterpoint; and ending with the foreboding, intense, chromatically colourful Intermezzo in E-flat Minor.

The two pieces from Klavierstücke Op. 76 that follow were written while Brahms studied Chopin’s music and are possibly less often performed than other works on the album. Each has an air of solemn nostalgia. Dunn handles the somewhat repetitive forms of these pieces such that we don’t hear repetition, but rather their inner voices and hidden melodies.

Next are the two E major Intermezzi from Fantasien Op. 116. These put the listener on somewhat unstable ground, with frequent shifts of rhythm, harmony, and melody that are often surprising. Here, Dunn creates the image of a muted spotlight blinking on and off, shifting its focus from one motive to another, again often using the inner voices to show Brahms’s changing moods. Dunn’s deft voicing and clarity are evidence of his deep understanding of Brahms’s idol, JS Bach.

Brahms called the three Intermezzi Op. 117 “lullabies of my sorrows.” Though quietly lamenting, each contains moments of agitation, particularly at climaxes. As is often the intention on this album, we hear timelessness and stillness, but Dunn ensures that these peculiar features do not dominate the mood or halt the music’s natural momentum. His soft sound is full-bodied, resonant, at times unthinkably quiet, the perfect combination for capturing the feeling of aloneness.

Pianist Jarred Dunn
Pianist Jarred Dunn

The final piece of the album, the first Intermezzo from Klavierstücke Op. 119, was no doubt carefully chosen to leave listeners pondering. Dunn plays this drawn-out Adagio so sensitively that it reminds us of Clara Schumann’s description of it as Brahms’s “grey pearl.” It is as close to impressionistic as Brahms ever is, a quality Dunn shows by expert shading of its complex harmonic lines. When the album’s trailer was released, Dunn received a mistaken notice of alleged copyright violation, suggesting that his Intermezzo Op. 119 No. 1 was the playing of such luminaries as Wilhelm Kempf and Radu Lupu. Dunn’s teacher Veda Kaplinsky (Head of Juilliard’s Piano Department) advised him to listen to Radu Lupu’s Brahms and when practicing to “insist on perfection.” 

Yet Mr. Dunn’s playing is not only the result of great teaching. Dunn possesses Lupu’s precision, sense of where the music is going, and knowledge of how to use the piano’s potential for colour. Like Radu Lupu, Jarred Dunn is a “thinking” pianist, who knows how to place every note without the end result sounding calculated. His Op. 119 No. 1 is serene contemplation free of exaggeration, an entirely successful creation.

Jarred Dunn, also a poet of the piano, plays Brahms with an innate and lyrical subtlety that may change the way listeners think of his music. Yes, we hear Brahms’s complex cross-rhythms, syncopations, and large chords, but they are not on display as athletic feats. To truly absorb Brahms in Solitude, do listen to each piece more than once. Perhaps because they are fairly short, slow pieces, we need more than one listening to fully process their intricacy and meaning. In Dunn’s playing, the late Brahms music has a faithful interpreter who plunges into the inner life of each piece. Surely Mr. Dunn would appreciate listeners enjoying contemplative exploration of this beautiful album. 

© Meg Freer, 2023

A guest post by Meg Freer (published in the summer 2023 issue of LaScena Musicale)

Meg Freer grew up in Montana and later studied music, obtaining a Master's Degree in Musicology. She worked in book publishing and now teaches piano and harmony and is a member of the Ontario Registered Music Teachers' Association. She is also an editor and published poet and lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario.