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8.550351 - BRAHMS, J.: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 (Biret)

Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Piano Sonata No.2 in F Sharp Minor, Op. 2

Johannes Brahms was born on 7th May, 1833 in the Gangeviertel district of Hamburg, the son of Johann Jakob Brahms, a double-bass player, and his wife, a seamstress seventeen years his senior. As was natural, he was at first taught music by his father, the violin and cello, with the intention that the boy should follow his father's trade, but his obvious interest in the piano led to lessons on the instrument from an inspiring teacher and his first modest appearance on the concert platform at the age of ten. From this time onwards he became a pupil of Eduard Marxsen, who gave him a firm grounding in classical technique, while he earned money for his family by playing the piano in establishments of doubtful reputation in the St. Pauli district of the port, frequented largely by sailors and others in search of amusement. By the age of fifteen he had given his first solo concert as a pianist.

In 1853 Brahms embarked on a concert tour with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi, during the course of which he visited Liszt in Weimar, to no effect, and struck up a friendship with the violinist Joseph Joachim, through whose agency he met the Schumanns then established in Düsseldorf. The connection was an important one. Schumann was impressed enough by the music Brahms played to hail him as the long-awaited successor to Beethoven, and his subsequent break-down in February 1854 and ensuing insanity brought Brahms back to Düsseldorf to help his wife Clara Schumann and her young family. The relationship with Clara Schumann, one of the most distinguished pianists of the time, lasted until her death in 1896.

Further concert activity and his association with Joachim and Clara Schumann allowed Brahms to meet many of the most famous musicians of the day. In 1857 he took a temporary position at the court of Detmold as a conductor and piano teacher, duties that he briefly resumed again in the following two years, continuing all the time his activity as a composer and spending much of his time in Hamburg, where his ambitions were always to centre.

Brahms first visited Vienna in 1862, giving concerts there and meeting during the course of the winter the critic Eduard Hanslick, who was to prove a doughty champion. The following year brought appointment as conductor of the Vienna Singakademie for the season and in 1864 he again spent the winter in the city, a pattern repeated in the following years until he finally took up permanent residence there in 1869. For the rest of his life he remained a citizen of Vienna, travelling often enough to visit friends or to give concerts, and generally spending the summer months in the country, where he might concentrate on composition without undue disturbance. He came in some ways to occupy a position similar to Beethoven in the musical life of the city, his notorious rudeness generally tolerated and his bachelor habits indulged by an admiring circle of friends. He died in Vienna in 1897.

In the music of the second half of the nineteenth century Brahms came to occupy a position in direct antithesis to Wagner. The latter had seen in Beethoven's great Choral Symphony the last word in symphonic music. The music of the future lay, he claimed, in the new form of music-drama of which he was the sole proponent. His father-in-law Liszt similarly found the way forward in the symphonic poem, an alloy formed from the musical and extra-musical. Brahms, largely through the advocacy of Hanslick, found himself the champion of pure or abstract music combined neither with drama nor any other medium. The distinction was in some ways an artificial one. Nevertheless Brahms, whose background, like Beethoven's, was less literary than that of Wagner or of Liszt, did significantly extend the range of the symphony and was hailed by many contemporaries as the successor to Beethoven, a future Schumann had prophesied for him 23 years before the first symphony was written.

Brahms wrote only three piano sonatas. The first of these, Opus 1 in C major, was completed in 1853 and published in that year with a dedication to Joseph Joachim. At Weimar Liszt had played through some of the sonata, before his usual admiring audience of followers, but whatever comments he may have made in the course of his performance have not been reported. Schumann, however, when he heard the sonata in Düsseldorf, was immediately impressed, as was his wife, who recorded the event in her diary. To Schumann the young composer was a genius, to whom no advice could be offered. In his sonatas were veiled symphonies in sound, as Schumann wrote in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Here, in fact, was the Messiah that had been long awaited. Such praise from such a source was daunting, and Brahms exercised all the greater care in revising his first two piano sonatas for publication in Leipzig by Breitkopf and Härtel.

The C major Sonata opens with an emphatic and firmly classical first subject leading to a lyrical A minor second subject, exploring a wide range of keys in a manner that might suggest Schubert. The second movement is based on an old German Minnelied, the words of which are given with the opening melody:

Verstohlen geht der Mond auf,
blau, blau Blümelein,
durch Silberwölkchen führt sein Lauf,
blau, blau Blümelein.
Rosen im Tal, Mädel im Saal,
o schönste Rosa!

(The moon steals out,
Blue, blue little flower,
Through silver clouds he takes his course,
Blue, blue little flower.
Roses in the valley, maiden in her chamber,
O most beautiful Rosa!)

The song was published by the polymath Zuccalmaglio, to whom it has by some been attributed, although others suggest that he only added romantic coloration to the songs he collected. Brahms offers a series of variations on the theme.

The E minor Scherzo is contrasted with an expressive C major Trio, and the sonata ends with a Finale marked Allegro con fuoco, its principal theme derived from the first subject of the first movement. There is an expressive G major first episode and a second rondo episode in A minor, the whole movement ending in a passage marked Presto agitato, ma non troppo.

The second sonata was written before the C major Sonata. In the key of F sharp minor, it was completed in 1852 and published in Leipzig at the end of the following year with a dedication to Clara Schumann. It too was among the works Brahms played to Schumann in Düsseldorf in 1853. The first movement is a dramatic piece of great passion. The Andante, composed first, is a set of variations on an old Minnelied attributed to Kraft von Toggenburg, Mir ist leide. The Scherzo starts with a melodic figure from the song. In B minor it has a contrasting Trio in a lilting D major, and is followed by a Finale that begins with an introductory passage followed by a song-like first melody, derived from the opening. The mood of the introduction, with its brief cadenzas, returns in the F sharp major conclusion.

Idil Biret
Born in Ankara, Idil Biret began piano lessons at the age of three. She displayed an outstanding gift for music and graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with three first prizes when she was fifteen. She studied piano with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, and composition with Nadia Boulanger.

Since the age of sixteen Idil Biret has performed in concerts around the world playing with major orchestras under the direction of conductors such as Monteux, Boult, Kempe. Sargent, de Burgos, Pritchard, Groves and Mackerras. She has participated in the festivals of Montreal, Persepolis, Royan, La Rochelle, Athens, Berlin, Gstaad and Istanbul. She was also invited to perform at the 85th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Backhaus and at the 90th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Kempff.

Idil Biret received the Lily Boulanger Memorial Fund award (1954/1964), the Harriet Cohen/Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal (1959) and the Polish Artistic Merit Award (1974) and was named Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite in 1976.

Idil Biret is recording for Naxos the complete Chopin cycle as well as all the piano solo works of Brahms and works by Rachmaninov.

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