Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
CDS44331/42 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Intermezzo: Allegro ma non troppo – Trio: Animato
Movement 3: Andante con moto
Movement 4: Rondo alla Zingarese: Presto
The sombre, spacious first movement is the most searching sonata-structure Brahms had yet written. The outer spans of exposition and development, with their almost reckless expansion and length of themes, are held in balance by the ruthless concentration on the one-bar motif that is the foundation of the very first theme, continually raising the level of tension, in the development. The way the recapitulation reshuffles the principal elements is unparalleled in a major sonata-style work, even introducing a completely new idea. The coda, beginning hopefully with sweet tranquillo-writing for strings alone, blazes up in a passion only to gutter out quietly in implied frustration.
Brahms calls the C minor second movement an Intermezzo: one of the first examples of the species of (sometimes deceptively) gentle scherzo he was to make his own. A delicate, moderate-paced, rather subdued interlude full of expressive half-lights, its poignant understatement throws the larger movements into relief. It refers, obliquely, to his love for Clara Schumann: the main theme is a haunting version of Robert Schumann’s ‘Clara-motif’ (a characteristic five-note falling–rising melodic shape), which Brahms took over in several works for his private symbolism.
The E flat slow movement begins as a full-hearted song, but develops into a strutting, almost military march in C major. This colourful parade somehow resolves the expressive tensions that have shadowed the work up to this point, making possible the sheer animal vitality of the concluding Rondo alla Zingarese. Startlingly extending a tradition of ‘gypsy’ finales that goes back to Haydn, this is the most unbuttoned episode in Brahms’s long love-affair with the popular and exotic Hungarian idioms he had imbibed from his violinist friends Reményi and Joachim. The movement’s devil-may-care abandon, with its extremes of pulse, virtuosity and emotional affliction, suggest his tongue was at least half in his cheek; and the extravagant piano cadenza that forestalls the whirlwind coda seems to parody Liszt himself.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2006