The Sonata in E flat major, Op 120 No 2 is more mellow and intimate in overall effect: any heroic passions are concentrated in the central scherzo. The Allegro amabile with which it begins—the very tempo direction is paradoxical—proves to be the most unassuming of Brahms’s sonata structures, yet one of the subtlest. Its musing, song-like character and explorations of colour and key conceal continuous, logical development and interrelation of themes, and its ending is gentle, marked dolce, tranquillo. In complete contrast, the second movement is a large and unexpectedly powerful scherzo in E flat minor. This Allegro appassionato is Brahms’s last scherzo, in the same key as his first (for piano, Op 4, composed forty-four years earlier) and it has something of the character of a heroic waltz. The function of the trio is assumed by a broad sostenuto melody, whose trend to asymmetric proportions—it has a rather Hungarian character—is echoed in the broad, glowing, fourteen-bar theme of the finale, Andante con moto. The classical poise, solidity of rhythm and opulent harmony of this tune offer enormous potential for the five variations to which Brahms subjects it. In fact these variations are comparatively simple and lyrical, paring the theme down to its smallest note-values and exploring its possibilities in modest contrapuntal textures of almost Mozartian clarity. The music rises to virtuosity only in the brief valedictory display of the closing pages.
from notes by Malcolm MacDonald © 2007