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8.555848 - BRAHMS, J.: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 16 (Matthies, Köhn)
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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Four Hand Piano Music, Vol. 16
Schumann: Piano Quartet, Op. 47
Joachim: Hamlet Overture
Schubert: Ländler


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 was able to use his talents by teaching and by playing the piano in summer inns, rather than in the dockside taverns of popular legend, a romantic idea which he himself seems later to have encouraged.

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 1854 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.

While Brahms arranged many of his own works for piano, a standard method through which new compositions could be heard, either played through to friends or published in this form for a wider public, he also turned his attention to the music of other composers. The present recording includes transcriptions of music by Schumann, Joachim and Schubert.

In 1854 Brahms had arranged the Scherzo from Schumann's Piano Quintet for piano, and in 1855, with Schumann now in the asylum at Endenich, where he would die the following year, he arranged for piano duet Schumann's Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 47. Written in 1842, the quartet is closely related to Schumann's Piano Quintet in the same key, written in the same year. The influence of Beethoven is at once apparent in the slow introduction to the first movement, the theme of which provides the first subject of the following sonata-form Allegro. The music of the introduction makes a return before the dramatic central development and is used again at important structural points in the movement. The original version of the quartet had allowed the piano an almost overwhelming part in the proceedings. The duet version, avoiding this possible criticism, continues with the Mendelssohnian G minor Scherzo, framing two short contrasting trios. At the heart of the work is the lyrical Andante cantabile, modulating tellingly from B flat to G flat major, a suggestion, if that were needed, of Schumann's feelings for his young wife Clara, for whom the work was primarily intended. The final Vivace, its principal theme provided in the closing bars of the third movement, finds a proper place for contrapuntal writing in a movement that provides a brilliant conclusion to a work that may sometimes almost seem to rival the Piano Quintet, equally effective in its piano duet transcription.

Brahms enjoyed a long friendship with the violinist Joseph Joachim, a relationship only broken for a time when Brahms gave support to Joachim's wife at the time of the couple's proposed divorce in 1884. Born at Kittsee (Köpscény) in 1831, Joachim, one of the great violinists of his age, had his first lessons in Pest, making his début in 1839. He studied in Vienna and then, from 1843, with Ferdinand David, leader of Mendelssohn's Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. His career took him in 1849 to Weimar as leader of the court orchestra and to an association with Liszt, before moving to Hanover three years later, where he was appointed violinist to King George. His later career took him, as head of the Hochschule für Ausübende Tonkunst, to Berlin, his home for some 39 years. His compositions include a number of works for the violin, elements in his own repertoire as a virtuoso. His wider cultural interests are reflected, in particular, in his early concert overtures, based on Shakespeare's Hamlet and Henry IV, and on Herman Grimm's recent play, Demetrius. The second two Brahms arranged for two pianos, and the first, in 1853/4, for piano duet. The Hamlet Overture, Op. 4, had impressed Schumann, who praised the poetic conception of the work, and attempted to conduct it in Düsseldorf, revealing still further his inadequacy as a conductor, which was causing increasing dissatisfaction. Schumann and his wife seemed unaware of the situation, which was apparent to Joachim and other friends at the time.

Joachim's Hamlet Overture, Op. 4, written in 1853 and dominated, as it is, by the ominous opening figure, evokes the drama of Shakespeare's play, although it does not follow a parallel narrative programme. Elements in the tragedy, however, are reflected clearly enough. The arrangement by Brahms for piano duet is a demonstration of his own respect for the work, and when, in 1860, Joachim virtually ceased to compose, preoccupied as he was by his career as a performer, Brahms expressed his regret at the decision.

Schubert died in Vienna in 1828, five years before Brahms was born, and Schumann was among those who helped to foster Schubert's posthumous reputation. Brahms made orchestral and instrumental arrangements of a number of Schubert songs and a piano transcription of the Great Mass in E flat, in addition to editing a set of eight symphonies. His edition and transcription of twenty Schubert Ländler for solo piano and for piano duet were both published in 1869. The arrangements include sixteen Ländler, D. 366, and four Ländler, D. 814, the former were written by Schubert between 1816 and 1824 and the latter, for piano four hands, and represent a lighter side of Schubert's music, pieces written, it may be supposed, in part for the entertainment of his friends. Whatever their commercial possibility, only two of D. 366 were published in his lifetime, the publication of the rest delayed until 1869.

Keith Anderson

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