, September 2006
Brahms was a most accomplished pianist and supported his family financially from an early age by playing the piano in dockside bordellos in the port of Hamburg. His output for piano spanned his entire life often making reductions of various orchestral, choral and chamber works; many of them for four-hands. This was a standard approach of the day that gave new and established compositions a greater accessibility to much wider audiences. Brahms’ four-hand arrangements ranged from small waltzes for solo piano to his own four-hand piano reduction of the mighty German Requiem; surely his most substantial undertaking in this form.
The Naxos label are up to volume 16 in the series and now turn their attention to the music of other composers whose music was significant in Brahms’ life namely: Schumann; Joachim and Schubert. The major work here is the Schumann Piano Quartet in E flat major which was arranged for piano duet in 1855 at the time Schumann was in an asylum at Endenich.
Composed under the inspiration of Schumann’s feelings for his young wife Clara and under the discipline of his recent study of the classical masters it is not surprising that the Piano Quartet turned out as it did. It is less expansive, less flamboyant than Schumann’s better-known Piano Quintet but the score belongs in the same aristocratic class and displays a special effort by this essentially epigrammatic composer to grasp classical structure.
Brahms’ friend the eminent violinist and string quartet leader Joseph Joachim was also a composer of some stature. Although favourably regarded in his day Joachim’s rather modest amount of compositions are now rarely performed and recorded. Joachim’s Concert Overture, Hamlet, Op. 4 dating from 1853, a score that had impressed Robert Schumann, was arranged by Brahms between 1853 and 1854 for piano duet, out of respect for his violinist friend.
Schubert, who had died five years before Brahms had been born, produced a library of dances and waltzes (Ländler) for piano, intended for the soirées at his own or his friends’ houses, known as Schubertiades. Brahms’ arrangements for piano duet include Schubert’s sixteen Ländler. Schubert had also composed four Ländler for piano duet and although we are not told I assume that Brahms made these arrangements for piano duo, using two pianos.
German-born pianists Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn have been performing as a partnership over twenty years. They have been consistently impressive with memorable and sparkling performances in this excellent Naxos series. In Schumann’s Piano Quartet they are fully engaged in this aristocratic score. They are also able convincingly to communicate the emotional pull and poignancy of the music, especially in the warm and intimate passages of the andante cantabile.
Matthies and Köhn are effective advocates for Joachim’s Shakespearean score, the Hamlet Overture. The couple provide a beautiful range of varying elements that captures the drama of the score. In Brahms’ delightful Ländler arrangements I love the way the duo easily convey Schubert’s charming and carefree spirit of the Vienna café house. Their playing of vigorous rhythmic drive reveals the peasant origin of the scores and the ingenuous folk-song style melodies.
This release was recorded five years ago and has been stored away until now. The well balanced sound quality is of a good standard and the booklet notes from Keith Anderson are generally helpful. However, the information contained on the jewel case sleeve is not without error; which is unusual for Naxos.
This continuing series provides much to enjoy. In this assortment of arrangements Matthies and Köhn provide commendable performances that give considerable pleasure.