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9.4.11

Brahms vs. Brahms

When you think of Romantic chamber music -- the dramatic sweep, the emotional extremes, the moody introspection -- the first piano trio by Johannes Brahms (op. 8) may come to mind first. The wondrous YouTube, among several performances, has video footage of a rather distinguished trio -- pianist Eugene Istomin, violinist Isaac Stern, and cellist Leonard Rose -- playing the work (see the first part embedded below and follow the links for the rest of the first and the second movement). You have to supplement it with video of another fine performance by pianist Elena Baschkirova, violinist Maxim Vengerov, and cellist Boris Pergamenschikow. For another perspective on the piece, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has made a performance of the Claremont Trio available by MP3 download.


Remarkably, Brahms completed this trio when he was still in his early 20s. He published the work in 1854 but then came back to it almost forty years later, publishing a second, revised version in 1891. Brahms, who was highly critical of his compositions, destroyed almost all of his early works, not believing them to be up to his exacting standards. In fact, this trio is the only work by Brahms to exist in two different versions, owing only to its early publication, although the revised score is almost always the one played today (YouTube even has a performance of the 1854 score). Thanks to the kind folks at the Brahms-Institut, in the Musikhochschule Lübeck in Germany, you can study both versions of the score through the International Music Score Library Project. If you want to lose yourself for a few hours in Brahms treasures -- scanned autograph scores, letters, other archival documents -- check out the Brahms-Institut's Brahms digital site.

available at Amazon
Brahms, Complete Trios (piano, horn, and clarinet), Beaux Arts Trio (et al.)


available at Amazon
Brahms, Piano Quintets / Zwei Gesänge for mezzo-soprano, viola, and piano, op. 91, Quatuor Modigliani (et al.)
At a concert tomorrow afternoon (April 10, 2 pm) the Kennedy Center Chamber Players will play both versions of this piano trio. To help show the shift in time, violinist Nurit Bar-Josef, cellist David Hardy, and pianist Lambert Orkis will play the 1854 version on historical instruments: a Fagnola violin and Hardy cello, both with gut strings, and an R. J. Regier fortepiano based on Viennese instruments. For the 1891 version they will play on their accustomed modern instruments: the Vuillaume violin loaned by the Library of Congress, a Testore cello, and the Terrace Theater's Steinway.

The other thing that happened in Brahms's life in 1854, of course, was that his mentor, Robert Schumann, attempted to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Rhine and was subsequently sent to an asylum. Brahms acted as intermediary between Schumann and his wife, Clara, and after Schumann's death even moved into an apartment over the Schumann house, and there has been much speculation that the attachment between Clara and Brahms was more than friendly. As David Brodbeck has shown, in an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Brahms, Brahms quoted a melody from Beethoven's song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved -- also used by Schumann to refer to Clara in the op. 17 Fantasy) in the fourth movement of this piano trio -- rather openly in the 1854 version, an allusion that he revised significantly in the later version, making it less blatant. The scherzo and other movements also use the "Clara cipher," a melodic fragment that Schumann used to signify his wife, and Brahms even cites the tune of "Meines Weibes nimm dich an" from Schumann's failed opera Genoveva, by which the departing Count entrusts his wife to his servant Golo.

Most of the changes Brahms made, however, seem to be because the original version was pedestrian, rather than any other motivation. As interesting it is to compare the two versions side by side, the 1891 version is obviously superior, and one can only be happy that Brahms decided to revise the work as he did. In tomorrow's concert, the two versions will be separated by Brahms's the two op. 91 songs for mezzo-soprano, viola, and piano (with Cynthia Hanna and violist Daniel Foster).

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