Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
CDS44331/42 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 1: Allegro con brio
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro molto
Movement 3: Adagio
Movement 4: Allegro
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