Sunday, August 02, 2009

Sunday Classics: In the piano trios and piano quartets, Brahms puts it all together


The American violinist Isaac Stern (who, as I've noted, had an uncanny affinity with Brahms), cellist Leonard Rose, and pianist Eugene Istomin, in addition to maintaining their busy solo careers and extensive teaching and other kinds of work with young musicians, found time to conertize extensively as a piano trio. Here they play the alternately driving and soulful second-movement scherzo of Brahms's First Piano Trio.

by Ken

It may be possible to play Brahms successfully without tapping into the extraordinary depth of his generosity of spirit, but it would be sort of like trying to do it blindfolded with both hands tied behind your back.

Already I feel bad for exposing this wonderful trio movement on its own, when it was designed so brilliantly to provide a change of pace from the soaringly songful opening movement of the Op. 8 Trio. By Brahms's time, not only had the scherzo (Italian for "joke") squeezed out the statelier minuet of Haydn's and Mozart's, but it was far from novel to position the scherzo second rather than third in the common four-movement layout of symphonies and chamber works. Haydn did it as early as No. 32 of his 107-odd symphonies, and even more frequently in his string quartets, especially earlier in his quartet-writing career. (By the way, he wrote scherzi rather than menuetti for all six of his Op. 33 quartets, four of them placed in the No. 2 slot, and such hardly-stately tempos markings as "allegro," "molto allegro," and "presto" became incrasingly common for his minuets.)

Obviously consideration has to be given to the overall plans of the work, though here as always you have to trust the composer's instincts. You might think, for example, that if ever a piece called for scherzo-second placement, it would be in Brahms's Second Symphony, with its gloriously rich, ruminative opening movement. Yet the composer chose to follow it with an Adagio (okay, an Adagio non molto). There's even an extreme cases where the composer himself couldn't quite work it out: Mahler's Sixth Symphony, where the composers instincts for the ordering of the middle movements, a scherzo and perhaps the most searingly beautiful conventional slow movement he ever wrote, at different times when opposite ways.

For Brahms's First Piano Trio (not quite as early a work as its Op. 8 numbering would suggest, since we normally hear it in a revision done some 45 years after the fact, a couple of years in fact after he wrote his third and last piano trio, the C minor, whose opus number is 101) it's a no-brainer, since the opening movement is one of the composer's supremely songful first movements. So the hushed, mysterious staccato murmuring of the opening of this second movement steals in as an utterly unexpected and delightful contrast to the great, expansive movement it follows. But then note the gorgeous contrast of the "trio" section at 2:13.

In the previous installments of this series, It wasn't easy being Brahms (June 28) and Could Brahms be underappreciated? (July 5), I went on a lot about the barely imaginable effort that composing cost Brahms, because of the high standard he set for himself, a standard clearly related to the deep understanding his own genius allowed him of the achievement of Beethoven. It's an unusual combination, to say the least: that degree of genius and that degree of humility.

Brahms's musical seriousness and generosity of spirit are evident most everywhere in his life. He took his musical history more seriously even than his esteemed predecessor Mendelssohn, devoting a great deal of time and effort to supporting musical scholarship and to overseeing, and personally editing reliable published editions of a slew of the great composers, and he was a great champion of younger composers and performers. (At some point we have to look at the remarkable career boost as well as the incalculable inspiration he provided for a talented Czech composer named Antonin Dvorak.)

Of course human admirableness is all, well, admirable in its way, but it doesn't by itself produce decent let alone enduring art. For that matter, neither does genius. There is, I think, more of it floating around out there than we normally reckon. The trick is that unless you figure out how to harness it, and ideally harness it for worthwhile purposes, it doesn't count for much.

Hard as the effort may have been for Brahms, this he managed to do with an eerily high success rate. And in the end, he managed to make it sound close to effortless. That is, unless, the performers get the misimpression that it's their job to open the music up and pull all the stuffing out.

In the earlier pieces I've offered my view that an awful lot of Brahms performances distort the music beyond recognition by reenacting all of the composer's struggle and suffering, showing off what they take to be his -- and therefore their great artistic seriousness. The reality is that by the time Brahms finished a piece, the heavy lifting was done. Performers who can master their often-considerable technical demands have only to tap into the spirit of the music to cash in big-time.

In this spirit, although we've still left a fair amount to say about Brahms (my goodness, we haven't even touched on the German Requiem (whose radiance tends to be obliterated by the phony sentimentality of pretend-serious performers), I thought it might be appropriate to close with this bracing performance of the Gypsy-flavored finale of the first of his three piano quartets, the G minor. It has been fascinating to watch over the last several decades as the piano quartets, once relatively neglected among the composer's output, came to be among his most-performed works. And I think there is something quintessentially "Brahmsian" about them.

(That devoted Brahmsian Arnold Schoenberg (yes, Schoenberg loved Brahms) produced an orchestral rendering of the G minor Piano Quartet which he hoped would become effectively a fifth Brahms symphony. Along with great love for and understanding of the piece, Schoenberg's orchestration is filled with naughtily zany bits of excess.)

This performance is hardly "definitive," a concept I don't believe in anyway for music of any compexity or range, and there's a lot about the movement that goes unexplored here. But the consistently fleet, energetic voice brings this wonderful quartet to a rousing conclusion:

Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard is joined by (as identified by YouTube commenters) violinist Lisa Batiashvili, violist Vladimir Mendelssohn, and cellist Sonia Wieder Atherthon. If you're curious how the movement sounds in Schoenberg's loving and slightly over-the-top orchestration, there's a clip by Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony from the 2007 Proms.


I have no hesitation in recommending the spacious, impassioned Borodin Trio performances of both the piano triosand the piano quartets.

For the lovely Stern-Rose-Istomin recordings of the piano trios, you want to find the set that couples them with the two majestic Schubert triosrather than the one that joins them with the oafish Stern-and-Friends performances of the Brahms piano quartets disfigured by the clunking of Manny "The Butcher" Ax. (I don't know if this is the place to mention it, but in the Beethoven bicentennial year of 1970, when Stern, Rose, and Istomin were performing the composer's chamber music for their instruments all over the world, it was the people at French television who sat them in a studio and videotaped all the piano trios -- in color and in stereo! Unfortunately no color tape of two of the trios could be found, but fortunately that didn't stop EMI from issuing a DVD setof these invaluable musical documents. It seems to me shocking but not surprising that nobody in this country thought to undertake such a recording project.)

The Szeryng-Fournier-Rubinstein performances of the First and Second Piano Trios are available as Vol. 72 of the Rubinstein Edition, and the Third Triois available as Vol. 73, coupled with half of the same trio's even more dazzlingly beautiful recording of the Schubert trios, No. 2 in E flat. (Of course then you still need Vol. 76for their performance of No. 1 in B flat.)

It's not hard to find the performances by violinist Josef Suk, cellist Janos Starker, and pianist Julius Katchen of the First and Second Piano Trios. Unfortunately,you won't easily find reasonably priced copies of the companion CDwith the Third Piano Trio and the Starker-Katchen Second Cello Sonata. If you see a reasonably priced issue of Suk's Supraphon setwith his regular trio partners, cellist Josef Chuchro and pianist Jan Panenka, filled out with a splendid performance of the beautiful Horn Trio, which we talked about in the first Brahms installment in this series), grab it.

I've already mentioned Philips' maximum-value twofer setthat supplements the fine Beaux Arts Trio performances of the three piano trios with excellent Grumiaux-and-friends performances of the Horn Trio and Clarinet Trio.

For the piano quartets, in addition to the above-noted Borodin Trio set with violist Rivka Golani, I find the performances by Arthur Rubinstein and members of the Guarneri Quartet of the First and Third Quartets, Vol. 65 of the Rubinstein Edition, a lot more appealing on CD than I ever have on LP. Unfortunately, Vol. 74, coupling the Second Quartet with the delightful Fauré First Piano Quartet, has become an expensive collector's item. I wound up doing Amazon's MP3 download, and I have to say that, while lyrical passages are lovely, the performance of the Brahms A major has much of the stodginess I associate with the experience of the LPs. The Fauré, which I don't think I ever owned on LP, is better, but still on the ponderous, decidedly unsparkling side. (I wonder whether better-than-MP3 sound would make a difference.)

An excellent bargain is the Vanguard twofer setof the lovely recordings by violinist Alexander Schneider, violist Walter Trampler, cellist Leslie Parnas, and pianist Stephanie Brown.

The performances of the piano trios (by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio) and piano quartets (by violinist Isabelle Faust, violist Bruno Giuranna, cellist Alain Meunier, and pianist Derek Han) in the budget-priced Brilliant Classics set I mentioned of the complete Brahms chamber music are outstanding.


Here is the updated list.

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