Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Trio Op 8 B major [original version]
Allegro con brio
Scherzo: Allegro molto
After spending Christmas with his parents in Hamburg, Brahms settled down to write the Trio in February of 1854. His progress was soon interrupted however, by news of Robert Schumann’s suicide attempt.
The exact nature of the relationship between Brahms and Schumanns has been open to much debate and wild speculation in musical circles and while the precise truth is still unknown, the fact remains that, at the very least, they were close friends. Upon hearing the news, Brahms immediately decamped to Düsseldorf in order to help the Schumann family. It was during this time that the Trio was completed.
Often described as ‘autumnal’ by critics and musicologists, the Trio is melancholy and introspective, its expansive melodies rendered even more beautiful by an underlying sense of emotional agitation. Given the circumstances under which this piece was composed, the sense of unrest is even more poignant.
The juxtaposition of unbridled emotion and strict observation musical form creates an extraordinary tension that would later become Brahms’ compositional calling card.
In addition to being his first major work, the Trio also turned out to be the first of Brahms’ pieces to be heard in the America. The young American pianist William Mason had been studying in Germany and brought the newly published score back to America with him. The premiere was given in New York on 17th November 1855 however the journey was beyond the financial reach of the young Brahms, so it was Mason that played the composer’s part.
Brahms suffered from a debilitating case of perfectionism. Considering his penchant for destroying completed works, it is amazing that this early work survives at all. Almost suffocating under the weight of Beethoven’s legacy, Brahms famously waited until his forties to publish a symphony and destroyed nearly twenty string quartets before completing Op 51 in 1873.
In the 1890s, when Brahms was mulling over the idea of retiring, his publisher offered him the opportunity revise some earlier works if he so wished. Op. 8 did not escape the editor’s pen and only the scherzo is unaltered in the revised version.
With his typical dry wit, Brahms described his intentions as, “not to stick a wig on it but merely to comb its hair a little.” If Brahms regarded removing nearly a third of the opening movement as a little combing, one can hardly dare imagine what a trim would entail.
It is quite a treat to hear the original version in this concert because although both scores are part of the modern chamber music canon, the 1890 revision is far more commonly performed.
About The Trio
The opening Allegro begins with a gently piano melody, which is overtaken in the second half of the phrase by the cello. Brahms had a fondness for the melancholic properties of instruments in this register and often featured the cello, horn and viola in his subsequent compositions.
The traditional function of the cello in a chamber ensemble was to reinforce the bass line however significant developments in piano design during Brahms’ lifetime meant that the bass notes were richer, louder and more resonant, thus freeing up the cello for more melodic pursuits. In this movement, the cello and violin are treated as one giant instrument, playing in unison or echoing each other. This is a technique that Brahms would turn to again 33 years later in his Double Concerto Op. 102.
Like its equivalent in the Horn Trio Op. 40, the Scherzo movement is a rollicking romp that can easily get away from exuberant but inexperienced ensembles. Brahms uses the unusually expansive Trio section to show off his melody writing skills. Just as the music is about to reach a tear-your-heart-out climax, Brahms relaxes the tension only to wind it up again for the end of the trio. The Scherzo comes again, mysterious at first, then galloping at full speed before slowing up and, rather surprisingly, fading into nothing.
Solemn, full chords open the Adagio, one of Brahms finest slow movements. As in the first movement, the strings and piano are again counterfoils and after several agonising bars of alternation, the three players finally join together to finish off the first section. The cello is given a chance to stretch its wings in a lengthy solo but then, after teaming up briefly with the violin, is relegated to its traditional bass role to accompany the violin solo. The repeated restatement of the main theme is all the more agonising for its simplicity, with a the opening motive recalling Schubert’s Cello Quintet D956 .
The Finale, Brahms reworks the instrumental relationships so that the violin and cello are now adversaries, each taking their turn with piano as if they are playing a solo sonata. The violin is given the spotlight throughout the exposition while the cello toils away as an accompanist. Except for a few tutti outbursts in the development, the two strings continue to separately ally themselves with the piano. Once the coda comes however, all members go for broke as the tension is ratcheted to the breaking point until the tumultuous final cadence brings the piece to a grand close.