BRAHMS: Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 5 / Ballades, Op. 10 (Idil Biret/ Martin Sauer) (Naxos: 8.550352)
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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Sonata No.3 in F Minor, Op. 5
Johannes Brahms was born on 7th May 1833 in the Gangevierteldistrict of Hamburg, the son of Johann Jakob Brahms, a double-bass player, and his wife, aseamstress seventeen years his senior. As was natural, he was at first taught music by hisfather, the violin and cello, with the intention that the boy should follow his father'strade, but his obvious interest in the piano led to lessons on the instrument from aninspiring teacher and his first modest appearance on the concert platform at the age often. From this time onwards he became a pupil of Eduard Marxsen, who gave him a firmgrounding in classical technique, while he earned money for his family by playing thepiano in establishments of doubtful reputation in the St. Pauli district of the port,frequented largely by sailors and others in search of amusement. By the age of fifteen hehad given his first solo concert as a pianist.
In 1853 Brahms embarked on a concert tour with the Hungarianviolinist Eduard Remenyi, during the course of which he visited Liszt in Weimar, to noeffect, and struck up a friendship with the violinist Joseph Joachim, through whose agencyhe met the Schumanns then established in D??sseldorf. The connection was an important one.
Schumann was impressed enough by the music Brahms played him to hail him as thelong-awaited successor to Beethoven, and his subsequent break-down in February 1854 andensuing insanity brought Brahms back to D??sseldorf to help his wife Clara Schumann andher young family. The relationship with Clara Schumann, one of the most distinguishedpianists of the time, lasted until her death in 1896.
Further concert activity and his association with Joachim andClara Schumann allowed Brahms to meet many of the most famous musicians of the day. In1857 he took a temporary position at the court of Detmold as a conductor and pianoteacher, duties that he briefly resumed again in the following two years, continuing allthe time his activity as a composer and spending much of his time in Hamburg, where hisambitions were always to centre.
Brahms first visited Vienna in 1862, giving concerts there andmeeting during the course of the winter the critic Eduard Hanslick, who was to prove adoughty champion. The following year brought appointment as conductor of the ViennaSingakademie for the season and in 1864 he again spent the winter in the city, a pattern,repeated in the following years until he finally took up permanent residence there in1869. For the rest of his life he remained a citizen of Vienna, travelling often enough tovisit friends or to give concerts, and generally spending the summer months in thecountry, where he might concentrate on composition without undue disturbance. He came insome ways to occupy a position similar to Beethoven in the musical life of the city, hisnotorious rudeness generally tolerated and his bachelor habits indulged by an admiringcircle of friends. He died in Vienna in 1897.
In the music of the second half of the nineteenth centuryBrahms came to occupy a position in direct antithesis to Wagner. The latter had seen inBeethoven's great Choral Symphony the last word in symphonic music. The music of thefuture lay, he claimed, in the new form of music-drama of which he was the sole proponent.
His father-in-law Liszt similarly found the way forward in the symphonic poem, an alloyformed from the musical and extra-musical. Brahms, largely through the advocacy ofHanslick, found himself the champion of pure or abstract music combined neither with dramanor any other medium. The distinction was in some ways an artificial one. NeverthelessBrahms, whose background, like Beethoven's, was less literary than that of Wagner or ofLiszt, did significantly extend the range of the symphony and was hailed by manycontemporaries as the successor to Beethoven, a future Schumann had prophesied for him 23years before the first symphony was written.
The third of the three piano sonatas that Brahms wrote, the Sonata in F minor, Opus 5, was composed during 1853and published in the following year with a dedication to Countess Ida von Hohenthal, aninfluential figure in Leipzig who employed the composer's younger brother Fritz asmusic-teacher to her children. The impressive opening, leading to a second element ofquiet intensity, is followed by a gently lyrical second subject in A flat major, while theromantic central development finds a place for a melody aptly marked quasi cello.
The second movement, marked Andante espressivo, is headed by averse by the poet Sternau:
Der Abend dammert, das Mondlicht scheint,
Da sind zwei Herzen in Liebe vereint
Und halten sich selig umfangen.
(Evening grows dark, the moonlight shines,
Two hearts are made one in love
Embraced in happiness.)
The first theme, repeated, is followed by a second delicatemelody. There is a passionate central section before the return of the first themes and afinal moving passage with marked dynamic contrasts, ending with harmonious and fullarpeggiated chords.
A rapid arpeggio introduces the Scherzo with much of the waltzabout it. To this the sustained chords of the Trio offer a contrast. The fourth movementIntermezzo, subtitled R??ckblick (Retrospect), looks back principally at the slowmovement, with an ominous accompanying drum figure. The Finale, a rondo, starts with itsprincipal theme, in F minor, energetic enough but no violent interruption to the mood ofthe Intermezzo. The expressive first episode in F major is answered by a developed versionof the rondo theme and a chordal episode in D flat major, the whole capped by a triumphantF major coda.
Brahms, like Chopin, wrote four Ballades. These were completedin 1854 and published two years later as Opus 10,with a dedication to the conductor and composer Julius Otto Grimm, whom Brahms had metduring the time he spent in Gottingen with Joachim, after parting with Remenyi. The firstBallade is based on the Scottish ballad Edward, published in German translation inHerder's Stimmen der Volker:
Dein Schwert, wie ist 's von Blut so roth,Edward, Edward?
Dein Schwert, wie ist 's von Blut so roth, und geht so traurigda?
O! Ich hab' geschlagen meinen Geier todt,Mutter, Mutter!
Ich hab' geschlagen meinen Geier todt, das gehtmir nah', O!
(Why dois your brand sae drap wi' bluid, Edward, Edward?
Why dois your brand sae drap wi' bluid? And why sae sad gangyee, O?
O, I hae killed my hauke sae guid, Mither, Mither:
O, I hae killed my hauke sae guid; And I had nae mair bot hee,O.)
By question and answer between mother and son the balladegradually reveals that the son has murdered his father and that his mother must bear theblame, to be cursed to hell. The Herder translation was set by Schubert. Brahms takes thetale to its bitter climax.
The second Ballade, in Dmajor, has no such overt literary origin. The expressively syncopated firstsection leads to a central B minor section, with its own contrasting material at itsheart. The final repetition of the opening continues to explore those richer ranges ofpiano sonorities that were always a feature of Brahms's writing for the instrument.
The third Ballade, in Bminor, carries the title Intermezzo, a desc