Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Classics: Which mainstay of the chamber music literature was first heard in 1855 in, of all places, NYC?


Violinist Isaac Stern, cellist Leonard Rose, and pianist Eugene Istomin play the first 10 minutes of the opening movement of the Brahms B major Piano Trio, Op. 8; the last 1:10 of the movement is here. We're going to have the second-movement Scherzo in the click-through. (No, the sound isn't great. I would recommend keeping the volume level moderate.)
The noble B major Trio of Johannes Brahms . . . possesses the distinction -- alone among the acknowledged masterpieces of the standard chamber repertoire -- of having been given its world premiere not in Germany, not even on the Continent, but in the benighted backwoods: the United States.

It was 1855. Franklin Pierce was in the White House, and an unknown young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln had just been defeated in the Illinois senatorial race. And that November 27 the Brahms Op. 8 was given its first performance anywhere in a Manhattan auditorium called Dodsworth's Hall, on Broadway at 11th Street -- an area which was then the nerve center of New York musical life.
-- James Lyons, editor of The American Record Guide, in his liner notes for RCA's third volume of performances by the Boston Symphony Chamber Ensemble, published in 1969

by Ken

As James Lyons is quick to point out, though, "the Op. 8 introduced in New York was not quite the Op. 8 we know," and in the click-through we're going to have his explanation and description, and we're going to hear the version of Op. 8 that would have been heard in Dodsworth's Hall in 1855 along with the revised version Brahms produced some 36 years later, which has become a mainstay of the literature.

I know we still have musical storms to deal with, carrying over from last week's Sunday Classics post, and we'll get to that. (That too is turning out to be not as simple as I had imagined.) I felt a schedule adjustment was necessary following Friday night's "flashback" post, into which I slipped what I thought was a pretty swell bonus: a complete performance of Schubert's Trout Quintet, to add to the complement of recordings included in the January 8 Sunday Classics post on the quintet, from the early years of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, established during the still-underappreciated music directorship of Erich Leinsdorf. It's a terrific performance, featuring the orchestra's string principals at the time (concertmaster Joseph Silverstein, violist Burton Fine, cellist Jules Eskin, and double bassist Henry Portnoi, with "guest artist" Richard Goode, early in his distinguished career. (He would have been about 25.)

As far as I know that recording has sunk without a trace, along with all three three-LP BSCP sets RCA produced in the period 1966-68. I could hardly fail to notice that this same set included a performance of an even mightier chamber masterpiece than the Schubert quintet: Brahms's Op. 8 Piano Trio -- again with Joseph Silverstein, Jules Eskin, and Richard Goode. Not having heard it in goodness knows how long, I decided to listen to it, and as long as I was going to listen to it I might as well make digital files of it -- and as long as I was making digital files of it, I thought the least I could do was share them.

So today's subject is none other than the Brahms Op. 8 Trio, and since I'm really going to have very little to say about the piece today, I think we might as well plunge right in, which is what we're going to do in the click-through, leading off with that Boston Symphony Chamber Players performance.



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At 4:12 PM, Blogger Philip Munger said...

The Dover edition of the piano trios has both versions of the B Major trio, and both clarinet and viola versions of Op. 114. IIRC - it is loaned out to a student who is writing a piano trio.

I think Musical Heritage Society had an LP set back in the 60s and 70s that had all the alternative versions of the trios too.

At 5:45 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Philip!

By now there are a number of recordings of the 1854 version of the B major Trio, and I was almost sure I had at least one, but I wound up spending the four bucks to download the very nice recording by the (appropriately named) Trio Opus 8, which on disc fills out their recording of the canonical three trios. I'm actually curious to hear them now.



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