This is the Radu Lupu CD that I celebrated in my latest New Yorker column as one of the most beautiful piano records ever made. Brahms described his Intermezzos Opus 117 as "lullabies of my sorrow"; the first in the set embodies this emotional doubleness, being at once an innocent, pure, almost childlike thing and a message of practically infinite sadness. Lupu plays it so well because he does not try to enhance by artificial gestures the complexities that lie behind the simple surface; instead, he lets us find them for ourselves. There is a certain symbolism in the key structure of this piece. The "A" section is in E-flat, which is Beethoven's "heroic" key, the key of the Eroica and the Emperor. Yet outward heroism has been completely stripped away; only a steady current of inward power remains. Strauss' great farewell, "Im Abendrot" in the Four Last Songs, uses E-flat in a similar way. But the middle section is in E-flat minor, which is for many composers the key of death. It is the chord on which Tristan dies; it is the key of the funeral march of Tchaikovsky's Third Quartet; it is the chord on which Elektra falls lifeless in her eponymous opera; it is the key of every movement of Shostakovich's Fifteenth Quartet, that requiem for requiems. In Brahms, the most quietly shattering moment comes when a C sounds miles deep beneath an E-flat-minor chord in the middle range, approximating the harmony of Tristan's death (a Tristan chord with no exit). Somehow the music pulls itself back from that abyss, and the opening music sounds again, with gentle vines of slow sixteenth notes wrapped around it. What happens in the final bars is beyond description.
Why, incidentally, does the key of E-flat minor seem to have a morbid sound? I once asked the St. Lawrence Quartet this question, with reference to the Tchaikovsky quartet, and they guessed that it has to do with the difficulty of playing E-flat minor on string instruments. Berlioz's orchestration manual calls this key "almost impracticable." Modern players don't have much trouble with it, but they still have to negotiate some awkward fingerings. The open strings, which produce the cleanest, brightest sound, are basically out of play. B-flat minor and A-flat minor have similar "dark" reputations, for not dissimilar reasons. Perhaps the hint of struggle puts a pall over the music — a deathly pall, if you like. This isn't an issue on the piano, where E-flat minor is theoretically interchangeable with any other minor triad. But the primeval key-associations linger, producing an intuitive shudder even in listeners who do not think they know the difference.