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8.570143 - BRAHMS, J.: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 18 (Matthies, Köhn)
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Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Four Hand Piano Music • 18

 

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double-bass player and his much older wife, a seamstress. His childhood was spent in relative poverty, and his early studies in music, as a pianist rather than as a string-player, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk of touring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who intervened to give him a grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy was able to use his talents by teaching and by playing the piano in summer resorts in support of his family.

In 1851 Brahms met the émigré Hungarian violinist Reményi, who introduced him to Hungarian dance music that had a later influence on his work. Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour, their journey taking them, on the recommendation of the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, to Weimar, where Franz Liszt held court and might have been expected to show particular favour to a fellow-countryman. Reményi profited from the visit, but Brahms, with a lack of tact that was later accentuated, failed to impress the Master, and when the partnership with Reményi foundered, he took refuge with Joachim, who was spending the summer at Göttingen. Later in the year he met the Schumanns in Düsseldorf, through Joachim’s agency. The meeting was a fruitful one.

In 1850 Schumann had taken up the offer from the previous incumbent, Ferdinand Hiller, of the position of municipal director of music in Düsseldorf, the first official appointment of his career and the last. Now in the music of Brahms he detected a promise of greatness and published his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In the following year Schumann, who had long suffered from intermittent periods of intense depression, attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in 1856, were to be spent in an asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support of Schumann’s wife, the gifted pianist Clara Schumann, and her young family, remaining a firm friend until her death in 1896, shortly before his own in the following year.

Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would be able to return in triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg. This ambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, intermittently from 1863 and definitively in 1869, establishing himself there and seeming to many to fulfil Schumann’s early prophecy. In him his supporters, including, above all, the distinguished critic and writer Eduard Hanslick, saw a true successor to Beethoven and a champion of music untrammelled by extra-musical associations, of pure music, as opposed to the Music of the Future promoted by Wagner and Liszt, a path to which Joachim and Brahms both later publicly expressed their opposition.

The monumental nature of much of the orchestral work of Brahms is in part a sign of the great pains that went into its construction. The second of his two piano concertos, jocularly described by Brahms himself as ‘the long terror’, was completed in 1881, thus falling between the second and third of his four symphonies in order of composition. Brahms had started work on the concerto in 1878 and completed it during the summer of 1881, spent at Pressbaum, near Vienna. He played through his version of the concerto for two pianos with the composer Ignaz Brüll for the benefit of his friend Theodor Billroth and Eduard Hanslick and in October offered it to Hans von Bülow, with his newly reformed Meiningen Court Orchestra. For its first public performance in November in Pest in 1881 the composer appeared as soloist, following this later in the same month with performances nearer home with the Meiningen Orchestra. Hans von Bülow now espoused the cause of Brahms with an enthusiasm he had previously shown for the music of Wagner, before the latter eloped with von Bülow’s wife Cosima, illegitimate daughter of Liszt. The first Vienna performance of the concerto was in 1884, when Hanslick, a firm friend of Brahms, could only speak with reserve of the composer’s technical ability as a pianist whatever his admiration for the concerto itself, praising his rhythmic strength and masculine authority, and remarking that Brahms now had more important things to do than practise a few hours a day, a kind excuse for any technical imperfections there might have been in his playing. Brahms dedicated the concerto to his old teacher, Eduard Marxsen, and following current practice, also published the work in his version of it for two pianos, thus making it accessible to a wider audience.

The first movement opens with a dialogue between the orchestra and soloist, initiated by the French horn, given to the second piano. The orchestra adds a second important element to the thematic material, to be interrupted by a longish piano solo. On its return the orchestra has a third item of significance to add, before the piano turns expansively to the opening melody, as the movement takes its impressive course. The second movement, a form of scherzo in the key of D minor, is on the same enormous scale. It is followed by a slow movement, in which, in the orchestral version, a solo cello proposes the first, tranquil theme, later to be varied by the soloist, before the appearance of other material, the pianist playing music of simple and limpid beauty above a low cello F sharp, accompanied by two clarinets. This brief passage of quiet meditation leads to the return of the first theme from the solo cello and the end of the movement. The concerto ends with a rondo that happily dispels any anxieties that might have lurked in the more ominous corners of the preceding movements, its mood inherited from Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms’s great predecessors in Vienna.

Joseph Joachim was born in 1831 at Kittsee, near Pressburg (Bratislava), into a comfortably situated Jewish family, related to the Wittgensteins. He made his first concert appearance as a violinist at the age of eight, studying further in Vienna before moving to Leipzig, where he worked with Ferdinand David in Mendelssohn’s Gewandhaus Orchestra. In 1849 he went to Weimar as leader of the orchestra of the Grand Duchy, where Liszt reigned as Director of Music Extraordinary. Three years later he was appointed violinist to King George V of Hanover. It was through his school-friend, the violinist Reményi, that he was introduced to Brahms, and to him that Brahms turned when his partnership with Reményi broke up, after disagreements over Liszt, whose help Reményi needed. Brahms spent a summer with Joachim at Göttingen, a meeting that brought him acquaintance with a wider circle of musicians, and finally friendship with the Schumanns in Düsseldorf, where they were later joined by Joachim. The relationships changed Brahms’s life. Joachim remained in Hanover until 1868, when he moved to Berlin, establishing a dynasty of violinists as one of the most distinguished performers and teachers of the time.

Joachim’s earlier employment in Hanover had allowed him time for composition, and among fifty works from this period of his life are four concert overtures. These last included his Overture to Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Op 7, which followed his Hamlet Overture, also transcribed by Brahms and written in 1853. Shakespeare’s play deals with the attempts of King Henry IV to establish his power in England after the defeat and killing of Richard II, leading, in the second part, to the succession of Henry V. The Overture, whatever its programmatic content may be imagined to be, is in sonata-form and ends with a final March, after the recapitulation of its two principal themes.


Keith Anderson


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