About this Recording
8.573489 - BRAHMS, J.: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 / 6 Lieder (arr. G. Schwabe and N. Rimmer for cello and piano) (G. Schwabe, Rimmer)
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Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Cello Sonatas and Songs


Two works for the same forces could scarcely be more different than Johannes Brahms’s two cello sonatas. Whereas the first is characterised by lyrical melodies and expansive gestures, the melodies of the Second Sonata are more sober and succinct. The form of the two works is also different: whilst Op. 99 displays the traditional four-movement structure (Allegro vivace–Adagio affettuoso–Allegro passionato–Allegro molto), the First Sonata only has three movements (Allegro non troppo–Allegretto quasi menuetto–Allegro) and omits the slow movement. The difference between the two works is no surprise, however—there are 21 years between them.

Sonata No. 1 in E minor for piano and cello was written in two stages: when Brahms was composing it in 1862 in Münster am Stein and Hamm, near Hamburg, he could not come up with a finale and only found himself able to add one in 1865. The work is dedicated to Josef Gänsbacher (1829–1911), who practised law but devoted most of his time to music and, despite his nonprofessional status, taught singing at the Conservatoire in Vienna from 1875. It is certain that the reason for the dedication was his procurement of the autograph manuscript of Schubert’s Der Wanderer—the dedication includes the words “Thanks for services as an honest broker”. After being premièred by Emil Hegar (1843–1921) and Karl Reinecke (1824–1910) on 14 January 1871 in Leipzig, the First Cello Sonata was quickly taken up throughout Europe, eventually becoming the first sonata for two instruments to be published by Brahms, as his Op. 38 (it followed the three piano sonatas, Opp. 1, 2 and 5). To this day, scholars still discuss the claim that an original Adagio second movement existed. Brahms’s first biographer, Max Kalbeck (1850–1921), was already puzzling over its form, the reason it was deleted and what had become of it; he suspected that the Adagio had been completed, and was of the opinion that it had later been adapted for use in the Second Sonata. Reasons for the “incomplete” form have included the suggestion that this movement did not fit with the finale composed later. However, scholars now incline towards the view that the movement never existed, the comment by Clara Schumann (1819–96) that she felt a slow Adagio was missing from this work having been misquoted—she at no point makes reference to an actual movement. Opinion is also divided on the final movement, composed in Lichtenthal near Baden-Baden in 1865—its fugato style is not very typical for Brahms. Clearly, a fugue has the advantage of giving the musicians equal importance, but it also runs the risk of the piano’s multiple lines swamping the cellist, as the first domestic performance by Brahms and Gänsbacher revealed. According to the cellist’s account of the occasion, he couldn’t hear his own instrument—though Brahms felt that this was for the best, given his unsatisfactory performance! Rather than being a subjective working-through of the composer’s grief after the death of his mother on 2 February that year, the movement incorporates a theme which Wilhelm Altmann (1862–1951) was the first to recognise as a slightly modified quotation from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Contrapunctus XIII from The Art of Fugue. Whether Brahms intended to incorporate a conscious reference to a work he admired deeply or only to make a barely discernible allusion to it is still a matter of debate. It is far more likely that his main concern was to establish a link to the principal theme of the opening movement and so embed the movement in its overall context, which the theme of the fugue obviously does.

Many years elapsed before the Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major was composed in the summer of 1886, concurrently with the two Violin Sonatas, Opp. 100 and 108 and the Piano Trio, Op. 101. From the outset, reviewers disagreed about the quality of the sonata, published as Op. 99 in 1887, often ranking it far beneath the violin sonatas or the First Cello Sonata. Criticism focussed mainly on the melody writing, which was felt to be more fragmented than was customary—Schoenberg later mentioned it as a classic example of developing variation—and the cello melodies, which were not very effective when judged according to conventional Romantic standards. The composer, on the other hand, was a strong advocate of the piece; considering that his activity as a pianist was, by that time, otherwise fairly limited, he played the sonata relatively frequently after its premiere in Vienna on 24 November 1886 with the respected cellist Robert Hausmann (1852–1902), who is thought to have inspired it. It is striking that this sonata is, despite its four movements, no longer than Brahms’s first work for these forces, which has only three movements. Looking at the score, it is immediately obvious how unusual the work must have seemed to contemporary musicians. The opening of the piano part consists almost exclusively of tremolo figures, and the two-bar motif beginning in bar 9 disappears into the bass line immediately after its first appearance. The cello, which would have plenty of space to develop a melodic line, only interjects isolated notes in the form of semiquaver suggestions—there is nothing that can be described as traditional melody writing. Not the least singular is that the cellist requires an uncharacteristically large range to reach unusually high notes from the very low register, whereas the earlier Op. 38 mostly stays within the tenor range, which fits the cello well. But despite the unusual features, there is always a feeling of cohesion, both within and between movements.

Between the two large-scale sonatas, this recording offers six songs in arrangements by the performers, Gabriel Schwabe and Nicholas Rimmer. They are songs for solo voice drawn from Opp. 43 to 97 and spanning a period of just under twenty years, from 1866 to 1885. A fair amount of preparatory work was needed to make the selection. In the first instance, melodic line and ease of transposition were the decisive criteria for excluding the pieces that were not suitable for arranging. To whittle down the choice further, the voice part had to be idiomatic for the cello’s particular colour and articulation. Gabriel Schwabe and Nicholas Rimmer aimed to create independent works for cello and piano that stayed as close as possible to the original song, so that there was no need for cuts or additions. The only departure from this is in Verzagen, Op. 72, No. 4, where Gabriel Schwabe introduces a broader range of colours by playing up the octave when the verse is repeated. If keys were changed, this was only insofar as was possible without losing their character; the original and final keys are therefore never far apart within the circle of fifths. Last but not least, the text was decisive; it contributes to the particular mood of the songs and is therefore also central in determining how they should be performed. The result is a selection of six songs which can be heard on this recording, starting with Die Mainacht (May Night) from the Vier Gesänge, Op. 43, to a text by Ludwig Hölty (1748–1776). Johannes Brahms’s songs probably set more of Hölty’s poems than any other poet’s; the composer even liked Hölty’s work so much that he thought his music could never do justice to the verses. Before Op. 43, Brahms hadn’t written any songs for some time, but here he picks up directly from the preceding works: the cycle is devoted to true love. This is also true of the Fünf Lieder, Op. 47, composed in 1868, which is the source of the songs Botschaft (Message) and Liebesglut (Fervent Love), to texts by Hafis (1320–89) in translations by Georg Friedrich Daumer (1800–75). Nine years later, in 1877, Brahms wrote Verzagen (Despair), one of the Fünf Gesänge, Op. 72, to a text by Karl Lemcke (1831–1913). In it the search for peace is palpably illustrated by constant demisemiquavers. Then in the following year he composed Sommerabend (Summer Evening), one of the Sechs Lieder, Op. 85. This and its companion piece, Mondenschein (Moonlight; not included here), set texts by Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) and employ a combined song form that Brahms had already developed in his Op. 19. The final song heard here is Nachtigall (Nightingale), which opens the six-part cycle Op. 97 and has a text by Christian Reinhold (1813–56). This song is particularly naturalistic, the piano accompaniment giving as accurate an imitation as possible of the song bird.

Oliver Fraenzke
Translation by Susan Baxter

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