Hyperion Records

Trio for piano, violin and cello in B major, Op 8
originally published by Breitkopf & Härtel in June 1854; very largely recomposed in autumn 1889

'Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music' (CDS44331/42)
Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
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'Brahms: The Complete Piano Trios, Clarinet Trio & Horn Trio' (CDD22082)
Brahms: The Complete Piano Trios, Clarinet Trio & Horn Trio
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Movement 1: Allegro con brio
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Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro molto
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Movement 3: Adagio
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Movement 4: Allegro
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Trio for piano, violin and cello in B major, Op 8
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.

from notes by Misha Donat © 1998

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