On Sunday afternoon I walked to Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear the Omega Ensemble perform a full length program that included works by Beethoven and Brahms.
Omega recitals traditionally began with a short performance by a young musician referred to as a "next generation artist." In this case the artist was 12 year old pianist Sabrina Lu who proceeded to play two short works - Chopin's Berceuse in D-flat major, Op. 57 (1844) followed by Alberto Ginastera's Danza del gaucho matrero, Op. 2, No. 3 from Danzas Argentinas (1937). I was very surprised to hear so young a performer choose the Ginastera. It's a virtuoso piece that combines very successfully elements of South American folk music with the dissonance of the twelve-tone school. I much preferred Ms. Lu's rendition of this work to that of the Chopin Berceuse, although she played both pieces exceptionally well.
Following this introductory performance the recital proper commenced with Gabriel Cabezas, cello, and Liza Stepanova, piano, performing Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2 (1796). The two Op. 5 cello sonatas were both written in Berlin while Beethoven was on a concert tour. Never one to miss a chance for patronage, Beethoven dedicated the sonatas to Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, who obligingly rewarded the young composer with a gold snuff box filled with gold coins. Though these are youthful works from the composer's early period, they do provide indications of the greatness that was to come. Most importantly, Beethoven was for once working without the benefit of models composed by either Haydn or Mozart. In that sense, he can be seen as creating here a new Classical genre. For the first time, the parts for the piano were fully written out, a sharp break from the Baroque practice of leaving them unwritten and using the keyboard only as part of the basso continuo.
The first half of the program concluded with violinist Itamar Zorman joining Ms. Stepanova on three popular short works arranged for violin and piano by Jascha Heifetz - Rachmaninoff's song How Fair This Spot, Op. 21, No. 7 (1900-1902), Debussy's famous Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894), and Gershwin's Three Preludes (1926).
The most interesting of these three works, perhaps because I had previously been familiar with only the original score for solo piano, was the Three Preludes. The work reflects Gershwin's ambition to be taken seriously as a classical composer. Though he had gained international recognition with Rhapsody in Blue, written two years earlier, he was still viewed primarily as a composer of Broadway show tunes. Accordingly, he came up with the idea of a complete set of 24 preludes in the grand manner of Chopin, but the number was gradually reduced, first to seven, then to five, and finally to three. It is the second movement in C-sharp minor, marked andante con moto e poco rubato, that is the longest and most successful. Gershwin himself described it as “a sort of blues lullaby.
After a short intermisson the recital concluded with a performance of Brahms's Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8 (1854, rev. 1889). The trio was originally composed in 1854 when Brahms was 21 years old and only a year after he had first become acquainted with the composer Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, without question the most significant encounter of his musical career. Brahms wrote the greater portion of the trio in Hanover, where he had been visiting the famed violinist Joseph Joachim in the company of the Schumanns, and then completed it shortly after the couple had returned to Düsseldorf. Unfortunately, almost immediately upon his return home, Robert, who had suffered from severe depression for most of his life, attempted suicide by trying to drown himself in the Rhine. Brahms rushed to Clara's side and helped her place Robert in an asylum in Bonn where he remained until his death at age 46 only two years later. Under these circumstances, it would be interesting to know if either Joachim or the Schumanns had any direct influence on the composition of the work. Certainly, there were some evident connections. For example, Brahms had inscribed at the top of the score the words "Kreisler junior." This was a reference to a fictional character created by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a widely read critic and author of fantastic stories. Schumann had found inspiration from this same character in his 1838 piano cycle Kreisleriana, Op. 16.
On the recommendation of Clara to Breitkopf und Härtel, the trio was the first of Brahms's chamber works to be published. (For that matter, it was his first piece to be played in the U.S. when in November 1855 it was given its American premiere in New York by the pianist William Mason.) When Simrock took over the publication of Brahms's works in 1889 the firm gave the composer the opportunity to revise any he so chose. Brahms took advantage of the offer to extensively revise the Op. 8 trio in spite of his famous remark that his intention had been "not to stick a wig on it but merely to comb its hair a little." The thrust of the revisions was to tone down Brahms's youthful Romanticism in favor of the more restrained style of his mature works. What's most remarkable about the revision, however, is that Brahms did not withdraw the earlier version from publication but instead left both available. Considering what a perfectionist Brahms was (he is reported to have destroyed some twenty string quartets before allowing the two Op. 51 quartets to be published and then only after having made extensive revisions following a private performance), it is astonishing that he would allow continued publication of an earlier version of whose deficiencies he felt so strongly that he took the time after the lapse of so many years to correct them. One can only assume that the older Brahms felt a strong degree of nostalgia for the passionate Romantic he had once been. Perhaps too the fact that the work's initial composition had been so intimately connected with Brahms's first meeting with his beloved Clara had created an emotional attachment in his mind that he was unwilling to let go.