Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
CDS44331/42 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 1: Allegro non troppo
Movement 2: Poco adagio
Movement 3: Scherzo: Poco allegro – Trio
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro
The first movement, one of Brahms’s largest and yet most serene sonata designs, opens with a theme presented in two rhythmically distinct halves (triplets in the piano, followed by more flowing quavers in the cello). These two ideas are apt for separate development, yet in combination they achieve a statuesque balance of force, and this double theme easily dominates the movement despite a rich cast of subsidiary melodies and figures; it has the last word, just as it had the first.
The slow movement is one of the most glorious Brahms ever conceived, a large but subtle ternary form articulating what Joachim called its ‘ambiguous passion’. The piano’s tranquil, song-like opening theme, and its gypsy-style cadential turn, are developed at length in ever-more floridly decorated statements. The piano is mysteriously shadowed by the strings, which Brahms keeps muted until the return of the main section: this throws the piano, with its desolate ‘Aeolian harp’ flourishes and ardent second theme, into unusual relief. There are anticipations here of the slow movement of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 2, twenty years in the future. The muted sonorities return in the coda, hushing the openness of Brahms’s lyricism.
At first, the easily flowing crotchet motion of the next movement seems too mild for a scherzo, too plain for a character-intermezzo like the analogous movement in the G minor Quartet. Yet it proves apt for an inexorable build-up of immense melodic spans. A more animated rhythmic interest appears only with the transition passage that leads to the second subject. The central trio is based on a variant of this transition theme, now turned fiery and Hungarian but treated with ruthless discipline as a strict canon between piano and strings.
The last movement is not a rondo but another fully worked sonata design; its first subject, nevertheless, has plenty of the capricious Hungarian colouring we associated with the alla Zingarese finale of the G minor Quartet. Here, however, the exotic flavour and idiosyncratic rhythms are subordinated to an ample, unhurried overall form whose length proceeds, Schubert-like, from the sheer size of the melodic paragraphs involved. The Olympian mood of relaxed strength satisfyingly rounds off a work whose perfect mastery is all the more remarkable for being so consistently understated.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2006