Saturday, July 03, 2010

Brahms' chamber music [2]

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the third and fourth instalments, I re-examine the chamber music of German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), after Bach my favourite composer of all time. This second of the two deals with his works in the period 1881-1894.

My version: Katchen/Suk/Starker (Decca, 1968, 29 min)
Composed almost 30 years after the first. The opening allegro sets the scene, this is a serious very mature work, full of melancholy. The Andante and Scherzo continue in this mood, melodious movements even in the absence of truly memorable tunes. The Finale is fitting. This is a fascinating work, very solemn, and not easy to appreciate.

My version: Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet (Philips, 1971, 27 min)
The contrast of the first string quintet (string quartet with extra viola) versus the preceding second piano trio is immense: right from the start of the Allegro, the sun shines in this spirited work full of catchy tunes. The second movement has a more solemn start, mid and end section, but in the alternating sections the mood becomes more optimistic once more. The closing Allegro brings the work to an energetic close. Brahms considered this composition one of his finest works, and I tend to agree.

Cello Sonata 2 in F major (op.99, 1886)
My version: Harrell/Askenazy (Decca, 1980, 28 min)
The opening Allegro Vivace is a touch more heavy-handed than I like, and recalls some of his piano works in that sense (and Brahms' piano works are not my favourites in his repertoire). The following Adagio is much more interesting with some delicate pizzicato sequences. The scherzo-like third movement has some great moments of interplay between the instruments, and the final Allegro Molto has the best melodies of the whole sonata. The two cellos sonatas are very different, and I rate them both very high.

Violin Sonata 2 in A major (op.100, 1886)
My version: Perlman/Ashkenazy (EMI, 1985, 20 min)
In contrast to the first, this is a happy sunny work, reflecting his mood and coming from one of his most creative periods. Relatively short, there is an abundance of themes here. Even the "slow" movement, a lovely dancing andante, is in high spirits. In the end though, I still consider it the least important of the three, as good as it is.

Piano Trio 3 in C minor (op.101, 1886)
My version: Vienna Piano Trio (Naxos, 20 min)
The opening Allegro is energetic and intense, giving way to melodic passages as well. The scherzo-like Presto gives a good contrast, the atmosphere being more subdued throughout. The Andante is subdued as well, at times beautiful but without the stunning themes Brahms was capable off. The Final offers satisfying contrasts between restrained and once more energetic passages. All in all, a great composition, but in the embarrassment of riches that is Brahms' chamber music oeuvre, not one of the frontrunners.

My version: Perlman/Ashkenazy (EMI, 1985, 22 min)
Much more tense and dramatic than the first two in the opening movement, the resigned Adagio features a simple yet gorgeous melody taken up by the violin. Rather than going straight to the final, Brahms inserts a short but fascinating hopping scherzo, which has been likened to malarial dreams. With a passionate Presto agitato final, Brahms concludes his last effort in this genre. All three are great, but I have a slight preference for the first one.

My version: Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet (Philips, 1971, 26 min)
Starting just as melodic as the first, the second string quintet does tend to be more serious. The tragic yet dignified adagio is simply beautiful - and reminds us that Brahms originally intended this work to be his swan song. This mood is continued in the wistful and wonderful Allegretto, after which a playful Vivace brings it to a conclusion.

My version: Schmidl/Schiff/Dolezal (Decca, 1982, 26 min)
The most beautiful trio ever composed for clarinet, cello and piano by far, and the first example of Brahms' inspiration by the instrument in his final years. It is a predominantly melancholic piece, where only the waltzes of the third movement provide relaxation from the darker mood. The final Allegro includes Hungarian themes, reminiscent of his early days as a composer. A beautiful work, but understandably overshadowed by the clarinet quintet that he composed later that year.

My version: Puddy/Delme String Quartet (HMP, 1987, 40 min)
When asked for my favourite piece of chamber music of all time before, I would have said that it is a toss up between Schubert's string quintet and Brahms' clarinet quintet. Listening to Brahms again has confirmed this, and probably given the edge to the more recent work. Every movement is brilliant, and the whole composition has a melancholy autumnal atmosphere that defies description. There is nothing more to be said, this is absolutely essential in any collection.

Clarinet Sonata 1 in F minor (op.120.1, 1894)
My version: De Peyer/Pryor (Chandos, 1987, 22 min)
Brahms' two clarinet sonatas are excellent works, and may well be the best ever composed for this instruments' combination. The first sonata opens with an Allegro appassionato that allows the clarinet to shine in quick notes successions, but also has its more melancholic moments. This is followed by a slow Andante, where the piano and clarinet combine to create an almost fairy-tale like atmosphere. My favourite movement is the Allegretto grazioso, wonderful melodies and gracious dance rhythms. The concluding Vivace is a delight, continuing the melodic highlights of the preceding movement. All in all, a delightful work.

My version: De Peyer/Pryor (Chandos, 1987, 21 min)
Brahms' second clarinet sonata, composed in the same year as the first, is quite different. The opening Allegro amabile has a rather melancholic nature, an autumn feeling to contrast with the spring-like first sonata. This feeling carries over into the rhythmic and highly melodic Allegro appassionato, and it appears fitting that this work should continue in a slower note, with a delightful Andante, which still ends uptempo and upbeat. A great work, but in the end I find the first even better.

My version: Golani/Bogano (Conifer, 1992, 24/21 min)
Brahms transcribed his clarinet sonatas for the viola/piano combination, and given the lack of a substantial repertoire for the viola, they do get played occasionally. However, the viola is a poor substitute for the clarinet in my opinion, even though taken on their own the sheer class of these works still shines through.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:

Hors concours: Clarinet Quintet
Essential: Clarinet Sonata 1, String Quintet 1
Important: Cello Sonata 2, Clarinet Sonata 2, Clarinet Trio, Piano Trio 2, String Quintet 2, Violin Sonatas 2+3
Good to have: Piano Trio 3
Not required: Viola Sonatas 1+2