Complete Brahms Trios (3CDs)
PIANO TRIO NO.1 IN B MAJOR, OP.8 (revised version)
PIANO TRIO NO.2 IN C MAJOR, OP.87
Of all the great composers, Brahms is probably the one we know least about. A passionately private man, he left few clues to the workings of his musical mind - unlike, say, Beethoven, there are no sketch books showing how his musical ideas evolved, just the final finished products. Anything that did not meet his exacting standards was destroyed; here is a composer who destroyed more string quartets and symphonies than he left behind. There is just a single exception, and that is the B major Piano Trio, written in 1853-4, at the height of his worship of Schumann when Brahms was twenty-one, and then revised in 1889, just before he started to withdraw into a semi-retirement from composing. By the time of the later version, the old version had a wide currency and was a popular
piece. The revised version is undoubtedly finer, combining that youthful fire with the experience that the intervening years had brought him. The opening retains its noble, sweeping idea from the original, a long singing melody, full of potential and implications, the unusual choice of key adding a warm glow. This immediately announces the scale of the piece as something equal to, say, Schubert’s final piano sonatas. After working this material to a focal point, Brahms then writes a contrasting idea. In the first version of the piece, the continuity breaks down, with a rather four-square idea, but in the revised version the continuity is such that the new theme - still retaining its own identity - grows naturally and seamlessly out of the first idea. The next section, after the themes have been stated is very different between the two versions, the first including an amazing if rather strenuous fugal passage, while the second has a density that Brahms found in old age. The piano figuration here is also far removed from the virtuoso of his youth, with clarity of texture of paramount importance. The restatement of all the material after this has a complete sense of maturity in the final version, a fusion of the two ideas and at the end, a sense of stasis, of recollection and of summing up. Listeners who know the late collections of piano pieces will recognise the fingerprints of the composer at his best here.
In all, Brahms pruned the first movement from 494 bars to 290, all in the interests of concision. The Scherzo has no such changes: mere details are changed along the way and a new coda is added, more successful and effective in preparing a slowing down of pace before the slow movement than the original, with its Mendelssohnian pizzicato version of the main theme. Listening to his Op. 4 Scherzo for piano, we can sense how the youthful Brahms found such music more straight-forward than in old age, although in the overall context of this work, the Scherzo does not sound out of place. In later life, Brahms generally preferred to compose intermezzo type movements instead of scherzos - for example, only the last of the four symphonies has a Scherzo, and that of a more “symphonic” definition. The slow movement is again quite different in the two versions, the opening chorale-like idea is allowed to expand in a way that Brahms restricts in the later version and the faster section, which provided contrast, is replaced by a passionate, rather sad theme, first given to the cello. Brahms once told his pupil Jenner that a long Adagio was “the most difficult” to sustain, hence, maybe, his original solution. The mood of the revised is much more restrained and where, in the original, the audience had to be content with a brief reminiscence of the opening theme, Brahms provides a fuller restatement, with musing improvisatory figures for the piano when the strings give out their answering phrase. A harmonic shift provides tension in this closing section and, though resolved quickly, the after-effects can be felt at the start of the last movement, the only serious attempt to dislodge the key of B - major or minor - in the whole of the work. The shadowy figures eventually give way to a carefree contrasting idea, which was an addition in the revision. Clara Schumann had not been uncritical of the first version but the theme that this replaced was special to her. In Schumann's music there is an element of quotation which appealed to the young Brahms, and the theme originally at this point was a direct quotation from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte. The symbolic significance of this quotation would not have been lost on Clara, at a time when her husband was desperately ill and it was the only part of the revision she disliked, telling Brahms that the new idea was “repellent”. The restatement is varied, but structurally similar to the opening of the movement and the coda, based on the first theme, dispels any lingering doubts. Again a swathe of material was removed in this movement: almost two hundred bars are cut. Brahms said of his new version of the piece, “I did not provide it with a wig, but merely combed and arranged its hair a little.” The opportunity had come to revise the Trio as a result of a new publisher taking over his works and offering a reprint of any revisions of slight weaknesses in the early works. He must have been surprised by the extent of Brahms’ touching up of this Trio and yet the miracle is how the old thematic material sits side by side with a new leaner structure, without a hint of inconsistency. Still Brahms could not make up his mind, when he finally got around to sending the publisher his revised Trio. “I must state that the old one is bad, but do not maintain that they new one is good!” That the new version speaks so directly to audiences, with none of the complexity of the older work is what has secured its place in the repertory.
The C major Trio was finished in 1882, twenty-eight years after the B major though the opening Allegro was composed in 1880. Both Summers were spent in Ischl, a spot which seems to have opened the floodgates of inspiration for Brahms (the last three movements were written in the space of a single month). The most withdrawn of his symphonies, the Third, dates from just after this time, and its reflective mood is predicted here in this Trio. The pianos had developed enormously during the middle of the nineteenth century and in chamber works where it is partnered by strings, its power had sometimes proved quite a tour de force for the strings; Brahms on the other hand provides a most effective balance between the strings and piano with the sort of writing which was to distinguish itself again the Double Concerto (here pitted against the orchestra) written at the end of
the same decade.
The rich flow and invention of the opening movement is the equal of the finest of the Classical period. one of its especial beauties is the heart of the movement where the opening theme takes on a lyrical guise, which returns in the lively coda. The slow movement is a set of five variations on a wistful folklike melody. An important motif source is the syncopation which runs throughout the theme, deliberately holding back the inherent liquidity until the final variation.
The Scherzo is a threatening affair, with diminished sevenths running though the harmonic fabric of the movement, a harsh contrast to the open diatonicism of the central section. The Finale is, like the first movement, in a tightly constructed sonata form. Brahms is in assertive mood and his pride in the works is fully evident in every small detail.
© Mike George
TRIO IN E FLAT FOR PIANO, VIOLIN AND HORN, OP.40
PIANO TRIO NO.3 IN C MINOR, OP.101
TRIO IN A MINOR FOR PIANO, CLARINET AND CELLO, OP.114
By 1890 it seemed to Brahms that his inspiration had all but dried up. His symphonies and concertos were written, and, following the String Quintet, Op.111, sketches including ideas for a fifth symphony were amongst the “torn-up manuscript paper” that, as he told his publisher Simrock, he threw into the River Traun when leaving the summer resort of Ischl. Yet in March 1891 the conductor Fritz Steinbach arranged for Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinettist of the Meiningen Orchestra, to play for Brahms. The effect was transforming. Brahms had never included the clarinet in a chamber context, yet by the end of the year Mühlfeld would premiere his Clarinet Quintet, Op.115, and the Clarinet Trio, Op.114, at the Berlin Singakadamie, with two Clarinet Sonatas following three years later. Mühlfeld was the sole inspiration behind Brahms’ final musical flowering, and so enchanted was the composer by the soft lyricism of Mühlfeld’s playing that he nicknamed him “Fräulein Klarinette”. The Trio’s premiere took place in December 1891, with Brahms at the piano and Robert Haussman playing the cello. The choice of cello for this Trio is significant, as it replaces the more usual viola (as employed by Mozart in his Clarinet Trio, K.498), lending the work an extra richness and darkness of timbre. The materials discarded by Brahms in his fit of pique at Ischl were not entirely wasted: the Trio opens with a melody thought to be that of the lost fifth symphony, and the incomplete canons he also rejected at that time may have helped in the formation of the second theme, a canon in inversion. The gorgeous sonata-form Adagio, with its long-breathed clarinet lines, fully exploits the rich sonorities of the three instruments, preceding a Minuet-like Andante intermezzo with two trios. Compared with the Quintet, the Trio’s formal organisation is concise, nowhere more so than in the final sonata Allegro, which has been likened to late Beethoven. Throughout, the relationship between the three instruments unfolds with great intimacy, prompting Brahms’ friend, the music scholar Eusebius Mandyczewski, to write: “It is as though the instruments were in love with each other.”
CD 2 The Horn Trio, Op.40, was written in the spring of 1865, and is a work of wide-ranging moods. The composer’s mother died shortly before the work was written, and Brahms contrasts elegiac poignancy with the jovial hunting calls so suited to the horn. Indeed, Brahms intended the work to be played on the valveless horn, which, though virtually obsolete and very difficult to play, has a raw quality that may have suited Brahms’ combination of moods in this work. Furthermore, the work is exceptional for its omission of the sonata-Allegro form; simpler structures are employed, again suggesting the composer’s desire for directness to take precedence over artifice. Nevertheless, Brahms achieves the fusion of apparently contradictory moods with great subtlety.
The piece opens, unusually, with an Andante, which, though wistful, also contains more vigorous passages that anticipate the Scherzo. This Allegro, though boisterous, contains a trio section in A flat minor which serves to link the Scherzo with the more plaintive first and third movements. The Adagio mesto is the most overtly mournful part of the Trio; reminiscent of the German Requiem, it features a quotation from the German funeral chorale Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten (“If you would let the loving God guide you”), previously used by J.S. Bach in his funeral cantata BWV93 and in four organ chorale preludes. In contrast, the finale is abruptly cheerful, yet even here Brahms incorporates moments of dark intensity simmering beneath the movement’s buoyant character.
The Piano Trio in C minor, Op.101, is one of the shortest of Brahms’ 24 chamber works. Its epigrammatic concision does not, however, diminish the work’s depth of expression; rather, its emotional intensity is compressed into four compact movements. The Trio was written in 1886 during a sojourn in Lake Thun in Switzerland, the rugged grandeur of which seems to infiltrate this music. In the muscular Allegro energico Brahms juxtaposes driving triplets with double-dotted rhythms, a device he also used in his Second and Third Symphonies, while the ardent second subject material, with strings in unison, anticipates his next work, the Double Concerto, Op.102. In the enigmatic Scherzo Brahms calls for the strings to be muted; wooden mutes are used on this recording. There follows a slow movement of elegant serenity, perhaps reflecting the tranquillity of the composer’s lakeside retreat. However, this peaceful atmosphere is achieved with great rhythmic subtlety; originally conceived in 7/4 time, the metre shifts between one bar of 3/4 and two of 2/4, with the central section, quasi animato, alternating between 9/8 and 6/8. The finale is characterised by unnerving textural, harmonic and rhythmic shifts. The struggle between the tonic major and minor persists until the final bars, when, at last, C major triumphs.
© Joanna Wyld, 2006
PIANO TRIO IN A MAJOR OP. POST
PIANO TRIO IN B MAJOR OP.8 (original version)
This final disc in the Gould Trio’s survey of Brahms’ works for piano trio is significant in featuring the composer’s two surviving chamber works written during the 1850s. Although he is known to have written a number of chamber works before meeting Schumann in October 1853, including a Phantasie Trio in D minor from around 1851, Brahms was rigorous in destroying these as well as subsequent works with which he became dissatisfied. The exceptions are the two works recorded here.
In the case of the Piano Trio in A, it is uncertain that Brahms was the composer. Its existence was unknown until 1924, when Ernst Bücken (the Professor of Music at Cologne University) received the score as part of the estate of the recently deceased Dr Erich Preigne of Bonn; albeit one written in a copyist’s hand and lacking either title-page or signature. The work was premiered at the Rhenish Music Festival in 1925 and published by Breitkopf and Härtel in 1938, but has never been fully accepted into the Brahms canon. While the copyist’s score is from the 1860s, the piece is almost certainly of earlier date. Its relatively Classical nature might suggest it as a product of Brahms’ years in Hamburg or Bonn before 1853, but its accomplishment makes it a likely successor to the First Trio from around 1856/7. Moreover, as the Brahms expert Malcolm MacDonald has pointed out, those who doubt it to be by Brahms are left with the task of ascribing it to a previously unknown figure capable of essaying a work of this quality. The first movement opens with a lyrical theme on piano, eloquently accompanied by cello, which expands across all three instruments. A brief but animated transition prepares for the second theme, more varied in expression though rounding off the exposition in like manner. The development initially centres on the second theme, before drawing elements of its predecessor into a spirited dialogue then subsiding into the reprise. This is intensified, as befits the nature of the themes, and it is the first theme which dominates the coda - enlivened by the rhythm of the transition towards its close. The scherzo begins with a lively but relatively understated idea characterized by its distinctive rhythmic profile. After a forceful climax, the contrast with the CD 3 soulful trio is the more marked. The scherzo music duly returns, but this is interrupted by reference to the trio section before the decisive ending.
The slow movement commences with a poetic idea of typically Brahmsian hue. Contrast comes with its more emotionally wrought successor, where the cello is accorded special status. The first theme returns in varied guise, and this is followed by the second theme in even more expressively heightened terms to bring about the main climax. It is the first theme, however, that sees the movement through to its conclusion with a rhapsodic lyricism which deserves to rank with the finest of the composer’s earlier inspirations. The finale sets off with a lively theme whose rhythmic vigour contrasts with the smooth contour of its successor. A compact development draws mainly on the first theme’s rhythmic profile, followed by a largely straightforward reprise then a coda that sees thework through to a trenchant close.
The Piano Trio in B is equally unique in Brahms’ output through its existing in two versions that are separated by 35 years. The composer conceived the work at the outset of 1854 and worked on it during the period of Schumann’s attempted suicide and subsequent confinement, completing it that June. It was only in the spring of 1889, when his publisher Simrock acquired the rights to scores published by Breitkopf and Härtel, that Brahms felt compelled to revise a work that enjoyed regular performance. His revision was so far-reaching that he toyed with designating it ‘Op.108’; even after its publication, he neither disowned nor withdrew the original version - writing to Simrock: “I must categorically say that the old one is bad, but I do not maintain that the new one is good ... if [the former] is requested, send it, and if you find it necessary and advisable to reprint it one day, then do so”.
Leaving aside stylistic considerations, Brahms’ motivation for revising the First Piano Trio was surely to remove those elements that reflect the emotional influence of Schumann and his wife Clara during its composition. Thus in the original first movement, the long-breathed melody extending over all three instruments as it builds to a fervent climax is followed by a second theme that quotes from Schumann’s only opera Genoveva. Its austerity and understatement come as a surprise, and it cannot prevent the development from opening with a musing uncertainty that rapidly intensifies into tempestuous three-way exchanges. Tension presently subsides and the reprise is underway with a full restatement of the first theme. This time, however, the second theme is made the basis of a substantial fugue (almost a second development) that accrues momentum on its way to a coda which, opening with a placid reference to the first theme, takes on new energy as it drives the movement to an impassioned conclusion. Lithe and capricious, the scherzo is typical in its rhythmic energy and harmonic sideslips. In contrast, the trio centres on a theme somewhere between hymn and folksong - building to a resonant climax before the return of the scherzo, then (in the original version) a coda whose pizzicato exchanges bring about the unexpectedly serene ending.
The slow movement begins with a rapt theme in which the piano shares tender exchanges with the strings. There follows an episode of greater forward motion but no less expressive poise (and one with a resemblance to Schubert’s song Am Meer from Schwanengesang), before the main theme returns with subtly elaborated textures. The music grows steadily in emotional force, arriving at a further episode - one removed in its entirety during the revision - which moves rapidly to an unexpectedly ardent climax before subsiding into a recollection of the first episode. The main theme then rounds off the movement with much of the serenity evident at the start. The finale commences with a lilting yet restive theme that soon takes on a potent rhythmic impetus. Cello introduces the easeful second theme, to which the violin presently enters in like manner to see the exposition through to its close. It is worth noting that this theme, alluding to Beethoven’s song-cycle An die Ferne Geliebte via Schumann’s Op.17 Fantasie, was also excised from the revision and to the chagrin of Clara Schumann. The development opens expectantly, alighting on a sinewy idea for strings (also omitted in revision) that effects an oblique transition to the reprise. The first theme is more demonstrative, and while its successor restores a measure of poise, the coda erupts with a vehemence that is sustained through to the fateful close - making this one of the very few works from its period that follows a course from major to minor.
While Brahms may not have intended such, his revised First Piano Trio almost entirely removed the original from circulation, and only recently has the latter enjoyed a return to favour. This is justified on the basis that the original has a spontaneity which represents the composer at a crucial stage in his evolution and, as such, could never be recaptured.
© Richard Whitehouse