BRAHMS: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 3 (Christian Kohn/ Silke-Thora Matthies) (Naxos: 8.553654)
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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 in1833, 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, asa pianist rather than as a string-player, developed his talent to such anextent that there was talk of touring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It wasEduard 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 emigre Hungarianviolinist Remenyi, who introduced him to Hungarian dance music that had a laterinfluence on his work Two years later he set out in his company on his firstconcert tour, their journey taking them, on the recommendation of the Hungarianviolinist Joachim, to Weimar, where Franz Liszt held court and might have beenexpected to show particular favour to a fellow-countryman. Remenyi profitedfrom 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 offerfrom the previous incumbent, Ferdinand Hiller, of the position of municipaldirector of music in D??sseldorf, the first official appointment of his careerand the last. Now in the music of Brahms he detected a promise of greatness andpublished his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschriftf??r Musik, declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In thefollowing year Schumann, who had long suffered from intermittent periods ofintense depression, attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in1856, were to be spent in an asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support ofSchumann'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 thefollowing year.
Brahms had always hoped that sooner orlater he would be able to return in triumph to a position of distinction in themusical life of Hamburg. This ambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settledin Vienna, intermittently from 1863 and definitively. In 1869, establishinghimself there and seeming to many to fulfil Schumann's early prophecy. In himhis supporters, including, above all, the distinguished critic and writerEduard Hanslick, saw a true successor to Beethoven and a champion of musicuntrammelled by extra-musical associations, of pure music, as opposed to theMusic of the Future promoted by Wagner and Liszt, a path to which Joachim andBrahms both later publicly expressed their opposition.
As a composer Brahms was at firstdiffident, casting and recasting what he wrote and discarding much, well awareof the challenge that Beethoven had left to posterity and of the growingexpectations of those who followed Schumann in their expression of confidencein 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 nurturedHaydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and as such held both a fascination anda challenge. Among compositions that he took with him was a String Quintetin 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 offriends, he accepted the expert opinion of the violinist Joachim, who told himthat the quintet was too difficult. The next step was to recast the work andthe quintet was now redrafted as a sonata for two pianos. It was on the adviceof Clara Schumann, who regarded this as a merely temporary measure, that thework, 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 waslost, although it has since been restored, while the Sonata in F minor fortwo pianos, Opus 34b, had its first and very successful performance inVienna in 1864 On this occasion it was performed by the composer together withthe young virtuoso Carl Tausig, a pupil of Liszt in Weimar. Tausig had beenborn 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, inearly 1864, had brought about the first and only meeting between Brahms andWagner.
The Sonata in F minor was dedicatedalso in this version to Princess Anna of Hesse, whom Brahms had met atLichtenthal while staying there with Clara Schumann and who had presented himwith the autograph of Mozart's Symphony in G minor. The firstmovement opens with the familiar and ominous principal theme, unharmonized, asin the Quintet version. It is the second piano that then is able to addpercussive effect to the following string chords, while the first player isentrusted with what was later still given to the piano. The second subject isin 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 ofBrahms's writing. The repetition of the exposition is followed, duly, by thecentral development of the material in music of generally mounting intensitywhere the technical needs of the percussive piano call for treatment differentfrom that of the strings in the later version, in which the strings can sustainvolume. In the recapitulation, after the return of the first subject, thesecond is given the key of F sharp minor, an even clearer indication of itsremoter harmonic nature. There is a relaxation into a gentle F major, beforethe original tonic minor key is forcefully re-asserted.
The A flat major Andante of thesonata frames a central section in E major, with the returning outer themere-arranged in its textures. The C minor Scherzo allows, in itstwo-piano version, additions to its opening syncopation, before moving intoduple metre and then into a triumphant march. A place is found for contrapuntaltreatment of the second of these three elements, a distinct reference to thesecond element of the principal subject of the first movement. The Trio, atthe heart of the movement, is in a gentle C major. The last movement startsimitatively, once more in F minor, the Poco sostenuto introductory barssoon leading to an Allegro non troppo in which the second piano has thetheme later to be given to the cello. Secondary material appears, in what seemsat first to be the key of C, now marked un pochettino pi?? animato and inthe two-piano version legato ed espressivo, a little livelier, smoothand expressive. The movement advances to a final coda, marked Presto, nontroppo, at first in C sharp minor, before the original key is restored in aforceful ending.
Wagner had grudgingly suggested that theremight still be some life in the old form of thematic variations, in the righthands, when Brahms played to him his piano Variations on a Theme of Handel, attheir meeting in 1864. Brahms showed very considerable skill in his handling ofthe form, to which he finally returned in 1873 with his Variations on aTheme 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. Thetheme itself seems to have been a pilgrims' hymn and the first version of thevariations by Brahms was that for two pianos, subsequently orchestrate