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8.557685 - BRAHMS, J.: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 15 (Matthies, Köhn)
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Johannes Brahms (1833–1897): Four Hand Piano Music, Vol. 15
Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4

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 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.

The first of Brahms’s symphonies was slow in gestation. Overawed by the example of Beethoven and the manifold expectations of his friends, and unresponsive to their anxious queries, he eventually completed his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68, in the summer of 1876. He was still busy with the fourhand piano arrangement of the first symphony, when, in the summer of 1877, he started work on his Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 73, while staying for the first time at Pörtschach on the Wörthersee, completing it at Lichtental in the autumn. The first performance was given in Vienna on 30th December, followed in 1878 by publication, after the necessary corrections of the score and the four-hand piano version, during a second summer at Pörtschach.

In the summer of 1883 Brahms took rooms in the spa town of Wiesbaden, perhaps to be near the young singer Hermine Spies, his Hermione without an ‘o’, whose musical abilities served as inspiration for his Opus 96 and Opus 97 songs. Symphony No. 3 in F major, described by a contemporary as Brahms’s Eroica, after the preceding Pastoral, was first performed in Vienna on 2nd December. In the four-hand piano version it is the second piano that introduces the opening wind chords, before the first piano adds the impressive descending theme, with its nod to Robert Schumann and characteristic mixture of major and minor. The clarinet A major second subject is entrusted to the first piano, a pastoral contrast to the grandeur of the first theme. The forceful conclusion of the exposition is followed by the full chords that open the central development. The clarinet and bassoon opening of the C major Andante is offered by the first piano, as the second adds the brief interjections of the strings, and the clarinet and bassoon second subject is also entrusted to the first piano. Similarly the cello theme that starts the C minor third movement is heard at the outset from the first piano, with its viola accompaniment, while the second weaves the cross-rhythm of the violins, a world away from the traditional scherzo. It is the second piano that takes up the principal theme on its return in the French horn, after the trio section, with its syncopated accompaniment. The last movement opens sotto voce and in unison, before the first piano takes up the chordal treatment of the theme by the woodwind. The second subject of this imposing sonata-form movement translates the repeated note triplets of second violins and violas into acceptable piano idiom, with characteristic cross-rhythms. The symphony ends with none of the defiance of Beethoven, but rather with gently suggested memories of the motif that started the whole work, concluding a work that the contemporary critic Eduard Hanslick found artistically the most perfect of the first three Brahms symphonies.

The next summer brought the beginning of work on the fourth and last of Brahms’s symphonies, the Symphony in E minor, Op. 98. This was completed at the same summer resort of Mürzzuschlag the following summer, to be performed under the composer’s direction at Meiningen in October. The symphony is amazingly convincing in its four-hand piano version, from the quiet serenity of the opening and the massive grandeur that follows, mingled with lyricism, its structure transparent in the reduced version. In the second movement Richard Strauss imagined a funeral procession moving silently across moonlit heights, suggesting, perhaps, an evocative painting by Caspar David Friedrich. A cello theme assumes prominence, with a decorative first violin part, after which the march resumes. The scherzo opens forcefully. Although it lacks a formal trio section, there is a relaxation of tension at the heart of the movement, before the original material returns in full vigour. It seems that Brahms had long contemplated a final movement in chaconne or passacaglia form, derived from his study of Bach. The movement starts with the passacaglia theme, scored in the orchestral version for wind instruments, now reinforced in grandeur by three trombones. In the thirty variations that follow Brahms demonstrates his mastery of the form and his debt to tradition, the whole revealed in the greatest clarity in the piano reduction, at one time the only sure means of hearing the work.

Keith Anderson


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