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8.571319 - BRAHMS, J.: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 (Biret Chamber Music Edition, Vol. 2)

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Sonata No. 1 in E minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 38 • Sonata No. 2 in F major for Cello and Piano, Op. 99


Johannes Brahms was born on 7th May 1833 in the Gängeviertel district of Hamburg, the son of a double-bass player and his wife, a seamstress seventeen years her husband’s senior. It was intended that the boy should follow his father’s trade and to this end he was taught the violin and cello, but his interest in the piano prevailed, enabling him to supplement the family income by playing in summer resorts, while taking valuable lessons from Eduard Marxsen.

In 1853 Brahms embarked on a concert tour with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi, during the course of which he visited Liszt in Weimar, to no effect, although Reményi, as an exiled Hungarian, was able to benefit from the occasion. Brahms, however, struck up a friendship with the violinist Joseph Joachim, who had brought about the visit to Weimar and through whose agency Brahms met the Schumanns, established now in Düsseldorf. The connection was an important one. Schumann was impressed enough by the compositions Brahms played to him to hail him as the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. Schumann’s subsequent break-down in February 1854 and ensuing insanity brought Brahms back to Düsseldorf to help 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.

Only in 1862, after a happy period that had brought him a temporary position at the court of Detmold as a conductor and piano teacher, did Brahms visit Vienna, giving concerts there and meeting the important critic Eduard Hanslick, who was to prove a doughty champion, pitting Brahms against Wagner and Liszt as a composer of abstract music, as opposed to the music-drama of Wagner and the symphonic poems of Liszt, with their extra-musical associations. Brahms finally took up permanent residence in Vienna in 1869, greeted by many as the real successor to Beethoven, as Schumann had predicted, particularly after his First Symphony, and winning a similar position in popular esteem and similar tolerance for his notorious lack of tact. He died in 1897.

It was in 1862 that Brahms wrote the first two movements of his first Cello Sonata, the year of his first visit to Vienna. At the time, however, there still seemed some possibility of employment in his native Hamburg and this was where his ambitions lay. The Cello Sonata was to have had a third, Adagio movement, but this was discarded, and the work was finally completed in 1865, after the death of the composer’s mother and at a time when the German Requiem was again in his mind. The sonata makes full use of the more sombre possibilities of the cello, inherent in its lower range. The opening theme of the first movement establishes this mood, momentarily lightened in the lilting closing theme of the exposition, which has been preceded by a characteristically dark-hued B minor theme. The closing theme, now in E major, ends the movement. The Allegretto quasi menuetto opens with a group of notes that is to serve as a concluding figure to the principal cello theme, a melody that has graver implications than are usual in a traditional minuet. The contrasting Trio, in F sharp minor after the A minor of the first part of the movement, offers a suaver outline, with a miraculous interweaving of cross-rhythms between the two instruments. The E minor Symphony of Brahms was to make use of a theme derived from Bach for its massive final passacaglia. The final Allegro of the E minor Cello Sonata takes its fugal subject from the same composer’s Art of Fugue, a work that has also been suggested as a possible source for the first subject of the first movement. The piano announces the subject in the left hand, answered by the cello a fourth lower and with a third entry an octave higher from the piano. The entry of the cello is accompanied by a countersubject in typically contrasted rhythm, a device for which Brahms shows his fondness again and again. These cross-rhythms continue as a feature of the movement, with its remarkable combination of traditional, formal technique with the sensibility of a later age.

Brahms spent the summer of 1886 at Hofstetten, near Thun, by Lake Thun, in Switzerland. Here he was able to work in peace in the countryside in a room looking towards the Bernese Alps. He was, at the same time, near his friend Joseph Victor Widmann, the poet and writer, who lived near Berne. Brahms had met Widmann at a music festival in Switzerland some years before. Now he was able to spend every Saturday at Widmann’s house, discussing the latest books and articles with which his friend might be concerned. As earlier summers at Pörtschach had proved a fertile source of inspiration, so Thun allowed the composer an opportunity to work on music of particularly lyric intensity. The first summer saw the composition of the F major Cello Sonata, the A major Violin Sonata and the C minor Piano Trio, while the following years brought the Double Concerto for violin and cello, the Zigeunerlieder and the third and final violin sonata.

The F major Cello Sonata, Op. 99, is a less sombre work than its predecessor in E minor, inspired in part by the cellist of the Joachim Quartet, Robert Haussmann. The writing is more lyrical and shows an almost youthful exuberance and intensity, apparent as the cello presents the first theme, over the tremolo notes of the piano. The second subject is entrusted at first to the piano, which soon breaks into those cross-rhythms that are a recurrent feature of the composer’s style. Cello tremolo notes end the first section of the movement and return during the course of a dramatic development. The second movement shifts to the remote key of F sharp major, an effectively mysterious change of tonality already implied in the brief excursion into F sharp minor of the first movement. The second theme of the Adagio, however, is in F minor, a sombre counterpart of the key of the first movement, and explores the darker, lower range of the cello, before returning, with plucked notes, to the subtly modified first key and melody. The third movement, marked Allegro passionato, has a piano part of even greater technical complexity than that of the first movement, offering further problems of balance to performers. Three piano chords lead from the F minor opening section to an F major Trio, which touches briefly on the key of F sharp, a semitone higher, giving once again that sudden and mysteriously ethereal effect experienced in the Adagio. The final Rondo, written first with apparent haste and later corrected by the composer, seems at first too insubstantial for the preceding movements, the third of which had seemed so conclusively final. Intervening episodes, however, add a touch of the more serious, before the final version of the first theme, which is to be played either with the bow or pizzicato by the cello.

Keith Anderson

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