About this Recording
8.553654 - BRAHMS, J.: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 3 (Matthies, Köhn)

Johannes Brahms (1833 -1897) Sonata in F minor, Op.34b
Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op.56b

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 gave him a grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy helped his family by playing the piano in dockside taverns.

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 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. Later in the year, however, he met the Schumanns, 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.

As a composer Brahms was at first diffident, casting and recasting what he wrote and discarding much, well aware of the challenge that Beethoven had left to posterity and of the growing expectations of those who followed Schumann in their expression of confidence in his ability. In September 1862 he arrived in Vienna for the first time, delighting in what he found. This, after all, was the city that had nurtured Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and as such held both a fascination and a challenge. Among compositions that he took with him was a String Quintet in F minor, scored, as Schubert's great C major Quintet had been, for two violins, viola and two cellos. Ready, however, to hear the advice of friends, he accepted the expert opinion of the violinist Joachim, who told him that the quintet was too difficult. The next step was to recast the work and the quintet was now redrafted as a sonata for two pianos. It was on the advice of Clara Schumann, who regarded this as a merely temporary measure, that the work, in 1864, took its final shape as the Piano Quintet in F minor, Opus 34, the form in which it is now generally most familiar. The String Quintet was lost, although it has since been restored, while the Sonata in F minor for two pianos, Opus 34b, had its first and very successful performance in Vienna in 1864 On this occasion it was performed by the composer together with the young virtuoso Carl Tausig, a pupil of Liszt in Weimar. Tausig had been born in Warsaw in 1841 and been taught by his father, himself a pupil of Thalberg. In 1862 he had settled, for the moment, in Vienna and it was Tausig who, in early 1864, had brought about the first and only meeting between Brahms and Wagner.

The Sonata in F minor was dedicated also in this version to Princess Anna of Hesse, whom Brahms had met at Lichtenthal while staying there with Clara Schumann and who had presented him with the autograph of Mozart's Symphony in G minor. The first movement opens with the familiar and ominous principal theme, unharmonized, as in the Quintet version. It is the second piano that then is able to add percussive effect to the following string chords, while the first player is entrusted with what was later still given to the piano. The second subject is in the remote key of C sharp minor, the enharmonic equivalent of D flat minor, admitting here some of those cross-rhythms which are a continuing feature of Brahms's writing. The repetition of the exposition is followed, duly, by the central development of the material in music of generally mounting intensity where the technical needs of the percussive piano call for treatment different from that of the strings in the later version, in which the strings can sustain volume. In the recapitulation, after the return of the first subject, the second is given the key of F sharp minor, an even clearer indication of its remoter harmonic nature. There is a relaxation into a gentle F major, before the original tonic minor key is forcefully re-asserted.

The A flat major Andante of the sonata frames a central section in E major, with the returning outer theme re-arranged in its textures. The C minor Scherzo allows, in its two-piano version, additions to its opening syncopation, before moving into duple metre and then into a triumphant march. A place is found for contrapuntal treatment of the second of these three elements, a distinct reference to the second element of the principal subject of the first movement. The Trio, at the heart of the movement, is in a gentle C major. The last movement starts imitatively, once more in F minor, the Poco sostenuto introductory bars soon leading to an Allegro non troppo in which the second piano has the theme later to be given to the cello. Secondary material appears, in what seems at first to be the key of C, now marked un pochettino più animato and in the two-piano version legato ed espressivo, a little livelier, smooth and expressive. The movement advances to a final coda, marked Presto, non troppo, at first in C sharp minor, before the original key is restored in a forceful ending.

Wagner had grudgingly suggested that there might still be some life in the old form of thematic variations, in the right hands, when Brahms played to him his piano Variations on a Theme of Handel, at their meeting in 1864. Brahms showed very considerable skill in his handling of the form, to which he finally returned in 1873 with his Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn. The theme in question is that of the so-called St. Anthony Chorale, found in a Feld-Partita for eight wind instruments, once attributed to Haydn but now thought to be the work of Ignaz Pleyel. The theme itself seems to have been a pilgrims' hymn and the first version of the variations by Brahms was that for two pianos, subsequently orchestrated. He had spent the summer of 1873 at Tutzing, near Munich, where he worked on the Variations, while completing his two Opus 51 String Quartets. The autumn brought a misunderstanding with Joachim, who, thinking he understood his friend's mind on the subject, had acquiesced in the omission of a performance of Brahms's German Requiem at the Schumann Festival in Bonn. Brahms, who thought the work should have been performed, however ambiguous his initial response had been, took offence, including Clara Schumann in his displeasure Matters were smoothed over, Brahms attended the festival and Clara was able to record in her diary that she had played over the Haydn Variations with the composer and found them quite wonderful. She played the work at her last concert appearance, in Frankfurt in 1891, when the programme makes it clear that the Variations were now more familiar in their orchestral form.

Brahms states the theme at the outset, in purely classical terms, moving at once, in the first of the eight variations, into a contrast of rhythms, the first piano adding a triplet counterpoint to the altered theme. There is a lively B flat minor second variation and a gently moving third, followed by a B flat minor Andante in 318. The fifth variation, in the major key once more, at first allows passages of thirds to the first piano, over the insistent repetitions of the second, before roles are reversed. The sixth version is marked Vivace, to be followed, in traditional style, by a graceful Andante in Siciliano rhythm. There is a B flat minor eighth variation in which the first piano enters with an inversion of the second, with subsequent canonic imitation, and the whole set ends with a passacaglia, in which a five-bar ground, derived from the theme, is repeated, allowing even further variations of the material above and around it.

Piano Duo Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn
The pianists Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn, both with individual solo careers, came together in 1986 to form the piano duo, Silke-Thora Matthies was born in Gütersloh, and studied in Detmold and at The Juilliard School in New York, winning first prize at the New York Gina Bachauer Competition and further awards in the Budapest Liszt-Bartók Competition, the Bordeaux Jeunes Solistes and the Cleveland, Ohio, Robert Casadesus Competition. She has recorded music ranging from Scarlatti to the contemporary and appeared as soloist and recitalist in Germany and abroad. Christian Köhn was born in Bochum and studied in Dortmnnd and Detmold, winning prizes in the Hamburg Steinway Piano Competition, the Dortmund International Schubert Competition, with awards from the Hamburg Oscar-und-Vera-Ritter- Stiftung and the Bonn German Music Competition. His career has also taken him as soloist and recitalist to various countries of Europe and the Near East. As a duo the two players have won wide acclaim, with international prizes, and appearances in recital and as soloists. They have broadcast regularly and have been responsible for a number of first performances of music by notable contemporary composers.

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