Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
CDS44331/42 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Andantino grazioso
Movement 4: Allegro
Having heard Mühlfeld play Weber’s Clarinet Concertino, Brahms asked him to play his entire repertoire for him and asked many questions about his instrument and its technique. Thus fired, he started composing again. Not only do the four works he wrote for Mühlfeld—the Clarinet Quintet and Trio of 1891 and the two Sonatas of 1894—rank among the supreme masterpieces of the instrument’s repertoire, but they represent the purest distillation of Brahms’s thought in the chamber music medium. They also reflect, in their innate expressive character, something of the personal isolation he was beginning to feel as many of his closest friends died off, in an increasingly frequent punctuation of his last years. When sheer beauty is evoked in them, it is as a consolation; nostalgia and melancholy often seem to underlie the most rhythmically assertive ideas. These works, in short, have established themselves as repertoire cornerstones not merely through their magnificent craftsmanship and powers of invention, but because they convey a particularly potent and complex nexus of feeling.
The Quintet and Trio, composed at the resort of Bad Ischl in the summer of 1891, received their first performances in Meiningen on 24 November that year, played by Mühlfeld. In the Quintet Joseph Joachim was first violin with members of the Court Orchestra. In the Trio Mühlfeld was joined by Robert Haussmann, the cellist of the Joachim String Quartet, and Brahms himself took the piano part. The Quintet was much the better received of the two, but Brahms several times declared that he personally preferred the Trio. When the Trio came to be published the following year, Brahms provided it with a viola part as an alternative to the clarinet. Such substitutions were not uncommon in the music of the time, though they may seem surprising to us today: performances of the Trio with viola have remained infrequent, and it is almost entirely associated in our minds with the timbre of the clarinet. (Even more surprising, Brahms also made an alternative viola part for the Quintet, turning it into the curious phenomenon of a string quartet with additional viola obbligato.) The viola seems less a natural leader in ensemble chamber music than the clarinet: its darker, huskier timbre does not stand out in such sharp relief from the other string instruments, but it imparts a greater intimacy which renders some passages more atmospheric and subtilizes the play of light and shade that is already part of the expressive essence of these works.
The music itself, of course, remains identical in its substance. Standing at the very end of his long line of concerted chamber music, the Trio in A minor, Op 114 embodies all the resource and subtlety of Brahms’s late style. Its extreme compression of thought marks it as a natural successor to his C minor Piano Trio, Op 101, composed in 1886. It is remarkable for the consistency with which it exploits the disturbance, anxiety and shadow of the minor mode, and brief excursions into the major often turn out to offer illusory consolation.
Here the cello assumes almost equal importance with the viola, and indeed opens the proceedings unaccompanied, with an eloquent melody varied by the viola and balanced by a muttering triplet motif in the piano. These ideas make up the first subject of a troubled and concentrated sonata-form design. The second subject opens calmly in the relative major (C major) but soon mutates to a more troubled E minor. The terse, uneasy development evolves new thematic entities—a sombre chorale-like phrase, whispering pianissimo semiquaver scales against wide-spread piano chords—and the recapitulation flexibly reshapes the elements of the exposition, bypassing the opening melody to move straight into its more fretful rhythmic continuation. This time the second group starts in F major but veers into the tonic A minor. In the coda the ‘chorale’ idea returns with apparently fateful import, and though the music gains A major it proves curiously insubstantial: the music evanesces into the passionless beauty of an Aeolian harp, with semiquaver scales in liquid contrary motion on viola and cello.
A more serenely philosophical mood, tinged with fantasy, prevails in the D major Adagio, which packs much musical matter into a very small space; paradoxically, this masterly compression gives a feeling of expansive relaxation. Brahms’s intricate elaboration of the smallest motifs, and the subtle oppositions of instrumental colour, yield textures and thematic working of unusual richness. The ensuing Andantino grazioso in A major is a self-mocking intermezzo, its nonchalant waltz-tune evoking the salon manner of Brahms’s popular Liebeslieder waltzes, but now fluidly and sophisticatedly varied. Perhaps the movement reflects the fact that Brahms had spent time at Bad Ischl that summer in the company of his friend Johann Strauss the Younger, whose waltzes he admired with something close to envy. It evolves three closely related themes, touches D major for a brief trio section, and nonchalantly reduces the initial waltz melody into a schematic version of itself along the way.
Bracing and rhythmically supple, the minor-key finale exhibits the most strenuous music in the entire work, in a sonata-form transformation of Brahms’s obsessive scherzo style. The combination of 6/8 and 2/4 metres intensifies the sense of unrest. The development, very concise, is notable for its rapid modulations, involving extended chains or ladders of descending thirds, which suggest mystery and instability even in the movement’s most cheerful passages. The movement drives on towards its conclusion with no relaxation, until the coda’s choleric bravura offers a terse, wintry gesture of dismissal.
from notes by Malcolm MacDonald © 2007