Wednesday, October 10, 2018

"Music among Friends" Performs Brahms

On Sunday afternoon I went to St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear an all-Brahms program performed by a group of musicians who refer to their performances as "Music among Friends."  The talented ensemble consisted on this occasion of Ji Soo Choi, violin, Grace Takeda, viola, Issei Herr, cello, and James Rosen, piano.

The program opened with the Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38 (1862-1865).  In contrast to the viola sonata that was performed next, the Op. 38 shows Brahms at the beginning of his career when he was still struggling to achieve recognition and success, not to mention the wherewithal to pay his living expenses.  It may have been the latter consideration that led him to indulge in a bit of deception when submitting the work to the publisher Simrock.  Certainly he could not himself have believed that "as far as both instruments are concerned, [the sonata] is certainly not difficult to play" when in fact it clearly requirea the skills of a virtuoso for successful performance.  One can see in this early piece that Brahms was still working to master his craft and carefully studying the works of earlier composers.  This can most clearly be seen in the third movement allegro that contains a number of fugal passages and is actually based on the Contrapunctus 13 from J.S. Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge.

The next work was the Viola Sonata in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1 (1894).  The two Op. 120 sonatas, originally scored for clarinet and piano, are Brahms's last chamber works and for that reason alone will always hold a prominent place in the repertoire.  But in addition to any sentimental value the sonatas, both in the original arrangement for clarinet and in the transcription for viola completed by the composer in 1895, have become cornerstones of the repertoires for their respective instruments.  In their original form, in fact, the Op. 120 sonatas more or less established a new genre for the clarinet.  Brahms certainly was aware of the extent of his accomplishment.  The fact that he took such care with the extensive alterations he made when preparing the viola transcription - in contrast to the Op. 114 transcription in which very few changes were made to the viola part - is indicative of the importance he placed upon them.  The two sonatas have vastly different characters.  The F minor, that played at this recital, is filled with a passion that demonstrates Brahms had lost none of his Romantic temperament.  The heart of the piece is the lyrical second movement, marked andante un poco adagio, whose autumnal mood well reflects the spirit of the elderly composer as he neared the end of his career.

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 that it had created an emotional attachment in his mind that he was unwilling to let go.

This was an excellent recital by highly talented musicians.  I particularly enjoyed the performance of the Op. 8 that was much more lively and exhilarating than many others I've heard.

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