The dark, tragic romance of the Brahms chamber music experience lies in these performances by Trio Wanderer.

BRAHMS: Piano Quartet No. 3 in c minor, Op. 60; Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8 (orig. version) – Trio Wanderer/ Christophe Gaugue, viola  – Harmonia mundi HMC 90222, 73:54 (1/22/16) ****: 

Trio Wanderer – Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabedian, violin; Raphael Pidoux, cello; and Vincent Coq, piano – have resuscitated (rec. January 2015) the 1854 version of the Brahms First Piano Trio, which the composer extensively cut some thirty-five years later, in 1889.  Much in the spirit of Schumann, Brahms had inscribed his name on the original score as “Johannes Kreisler, junior.” Having little affection for the work, Brahms essentially denied its existence until intimations of mortality had already oppressed him. The opening movement Allegro con moto underwent drastic changes, with Brahms’s having excised long, intricate passages of rather brooding character that adumbrate the extensive fugato that he intended as homage to both Beethoven and Schumann. If the older first movement lacks classical focus and concision, it possesses a broad effusion of emotion consonant with sturm und drang ideas, certainly musical antecedents for the likes of young Schoenberg’s romantic impulses and those of the younger contemporary of Brahms, Gustav Mahler.

The ghostly, galloping Scherzo: Allegro molto remains virtually untouched in the revised version; so here, in its original context, it exerts an eerie energy at first, perhaps in response to the E. T. A. Hoffmann fictions that had inspired Schumann. The lovely cello melody entering the secondary theme introduces a broad Romantic canvas that quite dispels the grotesquerie, at least for a sustained moment. The waywardness of the first movement infiltrates the third, Adagio non troppo, with its revealing the heavy influence of Schubert’s Schwanengesang, especially Am Meer.  The piano chords that begin the movement might have served Brahms in later years in an intermezzo. The misty idyll that opens the movement develops in rather uneasy terms, with jabbing chords from the piano in response to equally curt utterances from the strings. The finale, Allegro molto agitato, retains the edgy waltz flavor, tinted by intimations of Hungarian dances.  The sudden move to the major key quotes from Beethoven’s An die ferne geliebte. Piano and cello engage in romantic colloquy once more, with the violin in cross rhythm. As the waltz rhythms intensifies, the atmosphere becomes more Viennese but with dark hues and passions that unseal the emotional envelope.

The 1855 Third Piano Quartet will always bear the composer’s grim analogy to publisher Simrock, that he wished a portrait inscribed on the cover page of a man’s head confronted by a pistol.  The first movement gravitates between surreal, morbid tragedy and heroic assertion. The viola’s dark tones add to the often martial, sepulchral descent that literally trembles before us.  The music engages a series of variations before its unusual recapitulation in G. The octave leap unisons late seem to have been inspired by color-schemes Brahms attributed to Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. The c minor Scherzo: Allegro projects a singular demonic drive, a Brahms equivalent of a painting by Fuseli.  The piano part’s ostinato vibrates with compulsive quirky accents. Here, Brahms seems close to the mood of his Third Ballade, Op. 10.  

The third movement, Andante, may be “explained” as a lament for Robert Schumann or from the resigned Brahms, admitting that his love for Clara Schumann would remain platonic. The syncopated song allows the first violin his nostalgia. The piano assumes this affect, over haunting pizzicato from the strings. The Finale: Allegro comodo balances the opening movement in girth and seriousness of purpose.  A struggle between C Major and c minor ensues, much in the rhythmic manner of the Beethoven Fifth. Violin and piano first weave the “fateful” magic, quite anticipatory of the so-called “Regenlied” Violin Sonata, Op. 78.  The chordal second theme attempts to break the tragic spell, but to little avail. The falling third motif may already point to the first movement of the e minor Symphony.  Gaugue’s viola color lends much to the autumnal sensibility of the whole, and the innate warmth of the experience has been granted us via the talent of sound engineer Tobias Lehmann.

—Gary Lemco