Here are all of Brahms's Trios assembled on two CDs.
The three Piano Trios date from the extremes of the composer's life—Opus 8 from 1853/4 when he was about twenty years old (though here performed in its revised version of 1889), and Opus 101 from 1886, written when he was fifty-three. The Clarinet Trio was one of his very last works, written for the clarinettist who also inspired the Clarinet Quintet and the two Opus 120 Sonatas, Richard Mühlfeld. The marvellous Horn Trio is a middle-period work, composed when the composer was in his early thirties.
The five works are presented chronologically on the two discs. All are immaculately played by this most exciting young British ensemble whose first two CDs for Hyperion have drawn superlatives from critics worldwide: 'This is a wonderful disc. Another jewel in the heavily-studded Hyperion crown. A richly rewarding treat' (Classic CD on Dvořák Trios, CDA66895).
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The Trio in B major for piano, violin and cello, Op 8, is at once the first and the last of Brahms’s three conventionally scored piano trios. He was in his early twenties when he composed it, but even before the work had appeared in print he expressed doubts about it. Hardly had the firm of Breitkopf und Härtel accepted the Trio in June 1854 than Brahms confessed to his friend and mentor Joseph Joachim that he would gladly have held on to it in order to make alterations at a later date. For a performance in Vienna in 1871 Brahms made cuts in the development section of the Trio’s opening movement; but it was not until thirty-five years after the work’s original publication that the occasion to make a thorough revision presented itself. In 1888 Breitkopf sold the rights in Brahms’s music that had appeared under their imprint to the composer’s principal publisher, Fritz Simrock of Berlin. Brahms eagerly seized the opportunity to recast what had been his earliest chamber work. ‘You cannot imagine how I trifled away the lovely summer’, he told Clara Schumann the following year; ‘I have rewritten my B major Trio and can now call it Op 108 instead of Op 8. It will not be so dreary as before—but will it be better?’
In its original form the B major Trio is certainly an uneven work. It contains moments of unmistakable genius, but also a great deal that is surprisingly vapid in comparison with the preceding works of Brahms’s youth. Brahms’s revision amounted to a process of recomposition in which only the Scherzo—a piece of Mendelssohnian lightness—emerged more or less untouched. The miracle is that, although the newly inserted passages were such a vast improvement on the material they replaced, Brahms managed to graft them seamlessly, and with no discernible stylistic rift, onto the original. It is true, however, that with the exception of the Scherzo little more than the initial theme of each movement was retained. The broad opening melody of the first movement, for the piano and cello, survived intact (though in the early version Brahms had clearly introduced the violin too early, with a recurring phrase which added nothing to the musical argument of the opening paragraph while detracting from the effect of the theme’s more sonorous continuation for all three instruments), but the rather static latter half of the exposition, with what was all too clearly a latent fugue subject destined for elaboration at a later stage, was jettisoned, as was the entire development section.
In the slow movement, Brahms replaced the first episode with new material, beginning with a long and intense cello melody, while a second episode in the form of an agitated Allegro was discarded altogether. However, the wonderfully serene opening of the movement, with the piano’s chorale-like phrases answered by a contrasting idea on the two stringed instruments, was a youthful inspiration that clearly satisfied the mature Brahms—as did the return of the same material later in the piece, where the violin and cello are overlaid with delicate, winding figuration right at the top of the keyboard.
One youthfully impetuous feature of the B major Trio Brahms did respect was the fact that its finale is not only in the minor but also fails firmly to establish the home tonality at all until its closing pages. It is true that two of Haydn’s late String Quartets, from Op 76, have a finale whose first half is unexpectedly set in the minor, but in each case Haydn resolves the tension with a major-mode conclusion. Brahms, however, takes Haydn’s idea a stage further and actually ends his work despairingly in the minor. He was to write a minor-mode finale to a work otherwise in the major on two further occasions—the third symphony, and the G major Violin Sonata, Op 78—but not without in each case providing a peaceful ending in the major. Whether the bleak finale of the B major Trio was inspired by a premonition of the tragic events that were about to unfold in the Schumann household at the time Brahms first conceived the piece (Robert Schumann’s suicide attempt in February 1854, followed by his confinement in an asylum) must remain an open question; but certainly, it forms a startlingly dramatic conclusion to a work that had begun in an atmosphere of such serene expansiveness.
The Horn Trio, Op 40, is one of those chamber works (Mozart’s so-called ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio, K498, for piano, clarinet and viola is another) which invents an entirely new medium and, at a stroke, raises it to a level that no later composer could reasonably hope to surpass. In his youth Brahms had himself played the horn, and his lifelong fondness for the instrument can be heard in such famous orchestral moments as the opening bars of the Piano Concerto No 2, or the alpine theme that crowns the slow introduction to the finale of the first symphony. Despite the fact that valve horns had been in use since the 1830s, Brahms always retained a preference for the more rounded tone of the natural horn, or Waldhorn. In 1860 he completed a set of four songs for female voices with an instrumental ensemble consisting of two horns and harp. The last song, an evocative setting of a text from Ossian’s Fingal, seems to have rubbed off on the opening movement of the Trio Brahms composed in 1865 while staying in forest surroundings outside Baden-Baden. The two pieces are in a similar slow tempo, and have the same dactylic rhythm.
The Horn Trio is, in fact, Brahms’s only chamber work to begin without a sonata-form movement. Instead, it alternates two ideas in rondo fashion, the second of them slightly more agitated than the first. One consequence of this unorthodox beginning is that the Scherzo, rather than being a sectional piece, is a through-composed sonata form, so that in a sense one could say that Brahms is reverting to what in the Baroque period was known as the ‘church sonata’ design, in which slow and quick movements alternated in pairs.
The slow third movement begins with rolled chords deep in the bass of the piano, like some infinite sigh of regret. There is an autobiographical explanation for the music’s profound air of melancholy: Brahms’s mother had died at the beginning of the year in which he composed the Trio, and it is not for nothing that the word ‘mesto’ (‘sorrowful’) appears in the tempo indication for this slow movement. The atmosphere of mourning is heightened by the sustained, winding theme introduced at the first entrance of the violin and horn. The piano’s rolled chords return, to be followed by another sinuous theme, played this time in dialogue by horn and violin alone. This second theme, closely related to the first, is to weave its way through the remainder of the piece (at the reprise, Brahms shows that it can effortlessly be combined with the piano’s lugubrious chords), until a more consolatory version of the same idea provides an unmistakable pre-echo—albeit in slow motion—of the finale’s bucolic main theme. Such thematic anticipations can be found on occasion in Schumann (the link between the close of the slow movement and the start of the finale in the Op 47 Piano Quartet furnishes an example which Brahms can hardly fail to have known), though they invariably occur in the closing moments of the relevant piece. Brahms, on the other hand, allows his harbinger of the finale to be followed by the passionate climax of his slow movement, before the music slowly sinks towards its subdued close.
The finale’s ‘hunting’ theme is enlivened by off-beat accents and, later on, by a characteristically Brahmsian cross-rhythm which has the bar divided simultaneously into two beats by the violin and horn, and into three by the piano. For all its rondo-like character, this is in fact a fully-fledged sonata movement, complete with a repeat of its exposition, but not for a moment do the music’s high spirits flag. A more complete contrast with the preceding slow movement would be difficult to imagine.
In June 1880 Brahms began work simultaneously on two new piano trios—one in C major, the other in E flat major. He completed the opening movement of each and showed them to some of his closest friends and advisers. Despite the fact that Clara Schumann declared a preference for the E flat major piece, the always self-critical Brahms eventually destroyed it. Two years later, however, he took up the Piano Trio in C major again and completed it with the addition of three further movements. It was published in December 1882 as his Op 87.
The opening Allegro of this C major Trio contains an unusual wealth of thematic material: an imperious first subject given out in octaves by the violin and cello alone; a shadowy, chromatic subject (Clara Schumann found this too introverted—she would, she told Brahms, have preferred him to use longer notes); a further smooth idea played by the strings in octaves; and a gracious closing theme in dotted rhythm. The central section finds room to elaborate all of these except the last, and in characteristic fashion Brahms carries the music’s developmental character right through to the reprise of the second subject. There is also a substantial coda in which a sweeping augmented version of the main theme first heard in the development makes a splendid return.
The slow movement is a set of variations on a melancholy theme in A minor which again finds the violin and cello playing in octaves. The theme itself, with its characteristic ‘Scotch snap’ rhythm, shows Brahms’s continued fascination with the Hungarian gypsy style, though the penultimate variation, in the major, transforms it into a smooth, expansive melody of great beauty.
The Scherzo is in the minor, too: a mysterious, fleeting piece whose predominant dynamic marking is pianissimo. Its shadowy character is offset by the C major confidence of the soaring melody in the trio section. As for the finale, it could hardly be more different from that of the Op 8 Trio. It is one of those good-humoured rondos (with more than a hint of variation form thrown in for good measure) at which Brahms was so adept. Much play is made of the staccato repeated-note figure with which the piano accompanies its opening theme; and towards the end the theme reappears in a subdued augmented form, as though in echo of the procedure adopted in the opening movement.
The summer of 1886 found Brahms at the Swiss resort of Hofstatten. There, in the idyllic surroundings of Lake Thun, to which he was to return in the following two years, he completed three strongly contrasted chamber works: the grandly conceived F major Cello Sonata, Op 99, the relaxed and lyrical A major Violin Sonata, Op 100, and the dramatic C minor Piano Trio, Op 101. The Trio is, indeed, one of Brahms’s most concentratedly intense scores. No preliminaries here: the main theme is hurled forth in a sonority of orchestral power. The theme itself has two limbs: a sinuous line in its upper voice, and a rising scale in its bass. As early as the second bar the two voices are exchanged, with the pianist’s right hand playing the scale figure and his left the sinuous phrase. It is these two ideas that propel the greater part of the movement; and even the much more relaxed second subject, where the violin and cello once again sing out in octaves, is based on a broadened version of the rising scale. As in the C major Trio, the development is fused with the first stage of the recapitulation in a continuously evolving passage, and there is a lengthy coda which continues the developmental argument.
In one of his evocative similes, Donald Francis Tovey described the Scherzo of the C minor Trio as a piece that ‘hurries by, like a frightened child’. Not that the piece is that fast (‘Presto non assai’ is Brahms’s equivocal tempo marking), but it does share the spectral character of the Scherzo from the Op 87 Trio. This time the strings are muted, and the middle section—hardly a trio in the conventional sense—does little to disturb the nocturnal atmosphere.
Brahms at first notated the slow movement in the unusual time-signature of seven beats to the bar before opting instead to divide the metre into a recurring pattern consisting of a single bar of three beats followed by two of two beats. As in the Adagio of the B major Trio Brahms has the piano and strings alternating, though in this case it is the violin and cello that take the lead. The pulse quickens for a middle section maintaining both the music’s metrical irregularity (the impression created here is of five beats to the bar) and its basic alternation between strings and piano.
The finale sets off with what might be described as an intensified form of ‘hunting’ rondo theme. In fact, as in the Horn Trio, the piece turns out to be a sonata form, and its concentration on the minor is almost unrelieved until the onset of the coda. Here, at last, the music turns to the major and the violin transforms the main subject into a flowing melody not dissimilar to the theme of the trio section from Op 87’s Scherzo. Even at this stage, however, the music’s dramatic sweep remains undiminished and the work ends as powerfully as it began.
In the same productive summer that saw the composition of the C minor Piano Trio, Brahms began work on a Violin Sonata in D minor. He did not complete it, however, until 1888; and two years after that came a further chamber work which he intended should be his last—the String Quintet in G major, Op 111. Brahms had decided by this time that his life’s work was complete, and resolved to lay his pen aside; but he had reckoned without the inspiration that his meeting the following year with the Meiningen clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld would have on his creative imagination. Brahms was immediately attracted by the delicate sensitivity of Mühlfeld’s playing and apparently spent hours on end listening to him practise. In the summer of 1891 Brahms composed, in rapid succession, the Trio in A minor, Op 114, and the Clarinet Quintet in B minor, and the two works were premiered by Mühlfeld at a concert in December of that year. Two further pieces for Mühlfeld followed in 1894—the Op 120 Clarinet Sonatas which were Brahms’s final chamber works.
The inspiration behind the Op 114 Trio may have been the clarinet, but all three instruments are wonderfully integrated throughout—indeed, if anything, it is the cello that is frequently allotted the leading role. In the outer movements both main themes are initially given to the stringed instrument, and at the beginning of the work the cello is actually heard on its own, with a rising theme whose shape is perfectly complemented by the predominantly falling intervals of the second subject, in the major. This second theme, together with its accompaniment on the piano, is permeated by those chains of descending thirds which provide such a potent symbol of resignation in Brahms’s late music: one has only to think of the opening bars of the Fourth Symphony, or of the third of the Four Serious Songs.
Between the two main subjects of this opening movement, the music reaches its first climax, approached by a brief series of rapid scales on the clarinet and cello; and it is these scales, sounding at first like the rushing wind, that are to stamp their mark on so much of the central development. At the end of the development the scales intensify to form a further climax, which, in a splendid inspiration, coincides with the start of the recapitulation. (The overlap is achieved by omitting the principal subject’s initial bars altogether.) The scales make a distant return in the movement’s coda, sweeping the music to a ghostly close.
The slow movement shares its aura of autumnal serenity with that of the Clarinet Quintet, and since it does without any equivalent to the Quintet’s more agitated, gypsy-style episode, its atmosphere of profound tranquillity is more complete. The main theme, with its gently falling thirds, is clearly an offshoot of the opening movement’s second subject. Eventually, the long-spun melody gives way to a contrasting theme of utter peacefulness, initiated by the piano over a murmuring clarinet accompaniment, which returns in a more ornate form in the latter half of what is otherwise a piece that gives the impression of a continuous, meditative improvisation.
The third movement is a Brahmsian intermezzo par excellence—a waltz of infinite gracefulness, whose easy-going atmosphere of charm is scarcely ruffled by a slightly more athletic trio section. As if all this were in danger of becoming too much of a good thing, Brahms abbreviates the reprise of the opening material, and then adds a quiet coda in a slower tempo as though to recall the calm conclusion of the opening movement.
In view, no doubt, of the intimate character of so much that has preceded it, the finale is a muscular piece with more than a tinge of the gypsy style which had fascinated Brahms so much throughout his life. Nevertheless, falling thirds are everywhere in evidence—not only in the rondo theme itself, but also in a passage following its varied return, where Brahms has them descending in a continuous chain through a span of two octaves—first in the cello, then the clarinet. This time, however, there is no question of a subdued close. Instead, the music gathers force and brings the work to an end of altogether symphonic weight.
Misha Donat © 1998