BRAHMS: Trio for Piano, Clarinet, and Cello in A Minor, Op. 114; Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello in A Major, Op. posth. (ed. 1938) – ABEGG Trio (Ulrich Beetz, violin/Birgit Erichson, cello/Gerritt Zitterbart, piano/Martin Spangenberg, clarinet) – Tacet 151, 61:30 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Recorded 2005 in the Church Maria Rast in Mauerbach in the Vienna Woods, these two Brahms works embrace the early and late styles of the German master, often more closely akin than their respective dates (1853 and 1891) might signify. The Clarinet Trio has long been acclaimed as a direct beneficiary of Richard Muehlfeld (1856-1907), the clarinetist of the Meiningen Orchestra, whom Brahms called the “nightingale of the orchestra.” Brahms built the first movement of his A Minor Trio on a strong series of dialogues between the clarinet solo and the cello, often in parallel or contrary motion. The rich sonority of both Erichson’s cello and Spangenberg’s clarinet finds a burnished complement in the Hammerfluegel klavier of Zitterbart–with its leather-covered hammers–which adds some delicately warm treble tones to the aural mix. Much of the writing utilizes the same formulas Brahms employs in the E Minor Symphony, chains of rising and falling thirds, colored by low writing for the cello against sweeping, upward gestures in the clarinet. Spangenberg’s instrument, by the way, is a replica of an instrument played by Richard Muehlfeld.

The valedictory content of the E Minor Symphony extends itself into the Clarinet Trio as well, especially as the Adagio ruminates on themes that may derive Ein Deutsches Requiem. The clarinet maintains a rapt, optimistic affect, while the cello indulges its deep mahogany hues in the bass-baritone.  The Andantino grazioso third movement proves harder to pigeonhole: an A Major waltz carries an antique flavor, like a minuet; and it alternates with a Schubertian trio, a country dance in D Major. The Allegro finale, however, becomes quite stormy, though its brevity does not quite balance the other movements architecturally. Commentators note the similarity of the motifs to the Op. 8 Trio finale. What compels us is the luster the three participants bring to this late gesture of defiance by a composer otherwise noted for his concessions to classical restraint.

Brahms exercised the most severe censorship on his working methods, always destroying his working notes and experiments towards a finished product. In 1924, however, a Piano Trio in A was discovered in a manuscript collection in Bonn. The revision of 1938 did not help to establish the unequivocal mark of Brahms, though the keyboard writing bears his stylistic figurations. The high incidence of choppy repetitive phrasing in the first movement Moderato to achieve a grudging tonal modulation testifies to the awkward youthfulness of the writing, though the cello part allows Erichson her full arsenal of melodic effects. We can hear a decided Mendelssohn influence; that a Schumann riff or two inserts itself may come as small surprise. Ulrich Beetz makes his own points on a fine instrument–a Nicolas Lupot of 1821 Paris–in the long, rather sturm und drang movement, which bears a kinship to the Op. 2 Piano Sonata of Brahms. A syncopated Vivace ensues, in which the violin enjoys a strong concertante element, rather similar in style to a Viotti concerto for violin and keyboard. A lovely middle section hearkens to Schubert, a tender combination of laendler and instrumental aria. Some of the hazy hues that waft by might bear comparison with youthful Dvorak. The Lento opens with a Mendelssohnian chorale, the piano dominant until the violin and cello extend the cantilena. The syncopated riffs point to the G Minor Piano Quartet, though the violin and cello each has its own duet with the keyboard. The Presto projects a large, aggressive canvas rife with rhythmic thrusts and retreats, the textures thickly akin to what we hear in Cesar Franck. The writing assumes a canonic character, a typical move for the classically-conscious Brahms. In the later pages, a touch of the Brahms ubiquitous Hungarian or gypsy ethos asserts itself, though the harmonies bespeak the Faure modality. Another canonic outburst, presto, takes us to a resolutely and gruff conclusion, a militant peroration somewhat in Haydn’s earthy vein.

–Gary Lemco