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Trio for piano, violin and cello in C minor, Op 101
summer 1886

'Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music' (CDS44331/42)
Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
Buy by post £40.00 CDS44331/42  12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)  
Movement 1: Allegro energico
Track 5 on CDS44331/42 CD8 [7'09] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 2: Presto non assai
Track 6 on CDS44331/42 CD8 [3'34] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 3: Andante grazioso
Track 7 on CDS44331/42 CD8 [4'05] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 4: Allegro molto
Track 8 on CDS44331/42 CD8 [5'26] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)

Trio for piano, violin and cello in C minor, Op 101
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.

from notes by Misha Donat © 1998

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