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Assess Johannes Brahms’ image based on the commonly reproduced photographic evidence and you must reconcile two extremes. At one end is the strikingly handsome, long-haired, youthful Brahms – the iconic romantic virtuoso. At the other is the older, bushy-bearded, familiar Brahms – the iconic avuncular elder statesman. We tend to force his musical output to comport with this duality. 

In the case of his relatively small output for solo piano, this seems apt. His three sonatas and early sets of variations are all filled with swaggering virtuosity and relentless energy. Then, apart from his Klavierstücke, Op. 76 and the Two Rhapsodies of Op. 79, there is a long hiatus until the composer’s final decade when the four sets of Op. 116 through 119 appear in quick succession. 

But we make a mistake if we assume that all of these late pieces are in some way serene and autumnal. This is the work of a composer on the cusp of turning 60. The emotional fires may burn more briefly, but no less intensely.

Chopin championed the musical Ballade. With the Ballade in G minor, Op. 118, No. 3, Brahms distills Chopin’s epic narrative thrust down to a fleeting three minutes, a forceful rambunctious entrance and a quiet exit. What expectations does Brahms’ choice of title affirm or discard?