About this Recording
8.550352 - BRAHMS, J.: Piano Sonata No. 3 / Ballades, Op. 10 (Biret)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Piano Sonata No.3 in F Minor, Op. 5
Ballades, Op.10

Johannes Brahms was born on 7th May 1833 in the Gängeviertel 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 him 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.

The third of the three piano sonatas that Brahms wrote, the Sonata in F minor, Opus 5, was composed during 1853 and published in the following year with a dedication to Countess Ida von Hohenthal, an influential figure in Leipzig who employed the composer's younger brother Fritz as music-teacher to her children. The impressive opening, leading to a second element of quiet intensity, is followed by a gently lyrical second subject in A flat major, while the romantic central development finds a place for a melody aptly marked quasi cello.

The second movement, marked Andante espressivo, is headed by a verse by the poet Sternau:

Der Abend dämmert, das Mondlicht scheint,
Da sind zwei Herzen in Liebe vereint
Und halten sich selig umfangen.

(Evening grows dark, the moonlight shines,
Two hearts are made one in love
Embraced in happiness.)

The first theme, repeated, is followed by a second delicate melody. There is a passionate central section before the return of the first themes and a final moving passage with marked dynamic contrasts, ending with harmonious and full arpeggiated chords.

A rapid arpeggio introduces the Scherzo with much of the waltz about it. To this the sustained chords of the Trio offer a contrast. The fourth movement Intermezzo, subtitled Rückblick (Retrospect), looks back principally at the slow movement, with an ominous accompanying drum figure. The Finale, a rondo, starts with its principal theme, in F minor, energetic enough but no violent interruption to the mood of the Intermezzo. The expressive first episode in F major is answered by a developed version of the rondo theme and a chordal episode in D flat major, the whole capped by a triumphant F major coda.

Brahms, like Chopin, wrote four Ballades. These were completed in 1854 and published two years later as Opus 10, with a dedication to the conductor and composer Julius Otto Grimm, whom Brahms had met during the time he spent in Göttingen with Joachim, after parting with Remenyi. The first Ballade is based on the Scottish ballad Edward, published in German translation in Herder's Stimmen der Völker:

Dein Schwert, wie ist 's von Blut so roth, Edward, Edward?
Dein Schwert, wie ist 's von Blut so roth, und geht so traurig da?
O! Ich hab' geschlagen meinen Geier todt, Mutter, Mutter!
Ich hab' geschlagen meinen Geier todt, das geht mir nah', O!

(Why dois your brand sae drap wi' bluid, Edward, Edward?
Why dois your brand sae drap wi' bluid? And why sae sad gang yee, O?
O, I hae killed my hauke sae guid, Mither, Mither:
O, I hae killed my hauke sae guid; And I had nae mair bot hee, O.)

By question and answer between mother and son the ballade gradually reveals that the son has murdered his father and that his mother must bear the blame, to be cursed to hell. The Herder translation was set by Schubert. Brahms takes the tale to its bitter climax.

The second Ballade, in D major, has no such overt literary origin. The expressively syncopated first section leads to a central B minor section, with its own contrasting material at its heart. The final repetition of the opening continues to explore those richer ranges of piano sonorities that were always a feature of Brahms's writing for the instrument.

The third Ballade, in B minor, carries the title Intermezzo, a description of which Brahms later made much use. In a simple tripartite form, it frames a gentler F sharp major central section. The last of the Ballades, in B major, starts in tranquil mood, with some harmonic ambiguity. There is a central section in F sharp major, bearing the instruction Col intimissimo sentimento, ma senza troppo marcare la melodia (With the most intimate feeling, but without over-accenting the melody), the theme itself contained in a cross-rhythm texture. This provides a final epilogue to the work.

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 9Oth 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.

Close the window