BRAHMS: Piano Trios No. 1 – Trio Op. 8 (Version of 1889); Trio Op. 87 ‒ Vienna Piano Trio ‒ MD&G multichannel SACD MDG 942 1962-6 (& 2+2+2); 63:31 (7/8/16) ***1/2:
“In Finstrer Mitternach” = BRAHMS: Two Rhapsodies, Op. 74; Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 5; Ballade, Op. 10, No. 1 ‒ Nils Anders Mortensen, p. ‒ LAWO multichannel SACD LWC1084; 58:00 (2/6/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Brahms at midnight and mid-afternoon.
I decided to review these recordings together because they started me thinking about the fractious (mostly on one side of the equation) relationship between Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Thanks to Nicolas Slonimsky’s endlessly entertaining Lexicon of Musical Invective, we know that Tchaikovsky was not a fan of Brahms. In a diary entry from 1886, Tchaikovsky noted that he was playing some music by Brahms. His reaction? “What a giftless bastard!” Tchaikovsky did moderate his view when he met Brahms two years later in Leipzig, at the home of violinist Adolph Brodsky. Here, the Russian composer found Brahms a dignified, kindly man and generally had more complementary things to say about his German rival. However, auditing a run-through of Brahms’s new trio—presumably the Trio No. 3, Op. 101—Tchaikovsky was moved to opine, among a number of other observations, that the German’s music was opaque, lacking in color and beauty of melody.
There are a few backstories to Tchaikovsky’s assessment. Brahms, Tchaikovsky’s senior by seven years to the day, had been a musical superstar since the debut of his German Requiem in 1869. Until he started to gain his own universal recognition in the late 1880s, Tchaikovsky couldn’t help but fume over the critical reactions to Brahms’s concerti and symphonies as compared to those of his: both the now-beloved First Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto of Tchaikovsky were initially greeted with incomprehension if not outright contempt.
As it turned out, Tchaikovsky and Brahms met one more time, in 1890, in Brahms’s native Hamburg, where Brahms heard the Russian conduct his Fifth Symphony. Over dinner, Brahms returned the favor: he told Tchaikovsky he was not impressed with his music. Yet the composers apparently parted on amicable terms, though they were hardly fans of one another’s art.
Here, I’m just speculating, but I wonder if some of the Brahms that Tchaikovsky was playing and was so negative about might not have been Brahms’s piano music. Often gnarly and dark-hued, it still divides critical opinion. On the other hand, I wonder if Tchaikovsky wouldn’t have had more generous things to say about Brahms’s music if, during that soiree at Brodsky’s in 1886, he had instead heard one of Brahms’s two earlier piano trios. Both are more tender and lyrical works than the C Minor Trio, Op. 101. While the first two trios are separated by twenty-eight years, the version of the Op. 8 Trio that we hear today was revised so thoroughly in 1889 that, in Brahms’s own words, it should be considered “Op. 108 rather than Opus 8.”
It seems that only the spritely, Mendelssohnian Scherzo movement of Trio No. 1 remains intact. Brahms subjected the other movements to major overhauls or outright replacements, the largest change occurring in the last movement, a rondo in the earlier incarnation, a sonata-allegro in the final version. Interestingly, one of the more significant editorial decisions Brahms made was to remove a number of musical reminiscences of other composers’ works, a hallmark of early Brahms, including his Piano Sonata No. 3. The result of Brahms’s editorial interventions in his own youthful trio is a work of greater simplicity and forthrightness. Yet it retains some of that bright optimism characteristic of early works such as the Sextet No. 1 of 1860. Tenderness and simplicity fully characterize the slow third movement, and shadows linger over just the minor-key first melody of the last movement. But the clouds soon part, and we have a second melody of energy and confidence. As is often the case in Brahms, sun and cloud chase each other across the skies of this movement, though sun eventually triumphs.
About the bigger and grander Op. 87 Trio, I should mention that I heard a performance of the work at a music festival this summer and was impressed with just how many technical difficulties Brahms hurled at his three performers. It’s Brahms, so the piano part is especially athletic, but the violinist and cellist faced their own challenges, especially in maintaining a sense of ensemble, not always easy in the church where I experienced the performance. Thus my appreciation of the beautiful cohesiveness achieved by the Vienna Piano Trio and captured, very beautifully, by the MD&G engineers. In this trio, the performers are required to traverse a broader emotional landscape, including a monumental yet dignified opening movement, a theme-and-variations slow movement with hints of tragic intensity, and a genial yet patrician finale that must leave the performers in as buoyant a mood as it does an audience. This is clearly one of Brahms’s finest achievements in the realm of chamber music. Again, I wonder if Tchaikovsky’s impressions would have been different if he had heard a performance of this work at Brodsky’s home in 1886.
If he had heard the Vienna Piano Trio play it, he would certainly have heard a finely detailed performance, one attuned to the emotional vicissitudes I’ve mentioned. In fact both trios are presented in well-considered performances by the Vienna ensemble, and the fact that they are accorded a recording of with a wonderful sense of depth and spaciousness is a plus that should certainly be considered by any perspective purchaser. However, the Vienna players enter a near-saturated field, and there are so many fine rival recordings that I can’t really rate this one at the very top. A comparison with a recording by the starry trio of Renaud Capuçon, Gautier Capuçon, and Nicolas Angelic (on Virgin) confirms this. The playing here has just that much more beauty and character, and the music that much more drama. Again, though, the MD&G hi-res sound is in a class by itself and enhances the experience of listening to the Vienna Trio performances greatly. In conclusion, even if these performances aren’t at the very top of the heap interpretively, they are very fine performances nonetheless, ones that, thanks to the MD&G sound engineers, will take you right into the concert hall.
Returning to my ruminations about the mostly one-sided Tchaikovsky-Brahms spat, could Tchaikovsky have been thinking of Brahms’s piano music when he issued his harshest criticism of the German master? Despite Brahms’s masterly technique, some of his piano music seems overly serious, even severe. There are almost always great beauties, but they sometime come at a price to both the listener and performer. Having tried my less-than-professional hand at Brahms’s capriccios and intermezzi, I’ve felt let down by a lack of, well, caprice and sheer inventiveness in Brahms’s piano music. So there’s a certain truth in advertising about the title of Nils Anders Mortensen’s Brahms recital on disc, In Finstrer Mitternach.
Actually, the title, which translates to “In the darkest midnight,” comes from a poem by C. O. Sternau. Brahms inscribed the second movement of his Sonata No. 3 with the first three lines of Sternau’s poem, which describe the hearts of two lovers beating as one though the two must part. The poem goes on to a darker place as the man, a soldier, has midnight thoughts about the sadness of parting and separation. Musically, the beating of the two hearts can be heard in the rhythms of this slow movement. As far as biography is concerned, some have probably rightly speculated that Brahms reflected his growing attraction to Clara Schumann. The Third Sonata (1853) was the last work that Brahms wrote under the tutelage of Robert and Clara Schumann, and besides the clandestine love note to Clara that it may contain, it also contains a number of references to the works of other composers, including most conspicuously a quotation of the famous “fate” motif from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. There’s obviously an attempt on Brahms’s part to place this sonata in the context of the Classical masters. Thus it’s a big, big sonata, with five rather than the typical three or four movements. And it’s also mostly a dark and seething affair, with tons of cascading chords, broken and otherwise. Only the finale seems to hint at optimism and potential victory, perhaps in the manner of Beethoven’s Fifth. The sonata has its moments of beauty and majesty, but it is a long haul for the listener and for me doesn’t add up to a fully convincing musical statement.
Perhaps that’s why Brahms abandoned the piano sonata altogether after the Third, concentrating instead on his famous sets of piano variations and, later, the brief character pieces grouped as rhapsodies, intermezzi, and capriccios. The two Rhapsodies, Op. 74, seem to capture the two elements most prominent in the sonata, namely dark drama (No. 1) and marmoreal grandeur (No. 2). Intense yet lovely works, they’re easy to admire though, for me, not easy to love.
Then we have the first of Brahms’s Op. 10 Ballades, subtitled “Edward.” It’s based on a rather bloodthirsty Scottish ballad cast in the form of a dialog between a mother and her son, who has killed his father and is fleeing the country, leaving all his former loves and properties behind to whatever fate may befall them. Again, we find Brahms in a dark and brooding mood, but here the composer creates music of bardic simplicity, seeking and finding an almost modal harmonic language to support his musical tale. Small wonder it’s the most popular of the four Ballades.
This is a well-chosen program with an equally apt title, showcasing an aspect of Brahms’s art that will undoubtedly divide listeners. As I suggest, this music is a bit too intense, maybe too monochrome, to elicit a fully loving response, but I greatly admire Brahms’s achievements here. I’m happy to report that having taken up the challenge of presenting some of Brahms’s bleakest meditations, Norwegian pianist Nils Anders Mortensen acquits himself admirably. His technique is sound— and would have to be to propel him through Brahms’s knotty sonata—but more, he plays with great sympathy for Brahms and his dark muse. There’s much beautiful playing here, enhanced by a very natural surround-sound recording from LAWO. Recommended for your darkest-midnight listening pleasure.