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Piano Trio No. 2 in C, Op. 87

January 27, 2019: Pinchas Zukerman Trio

From his holiday haunt at Ischl in June of 1880, Brahms sent the first movements of two piano trios to his friend, famous surgeon and amateur musician Theodor Billroth. Brahms then laid both trios aside—the one in E-flat major permanently and that in C major until precisely two years later when, again at Ischl, he added three more movements. The C major Trio exudes the confidence, happiness, and fulfillment of a composer at his zenith who was widely recognized as one of the greatest of his time. With uncharacteristic pride Brahms wrote to his publisher Simrock, “You have not so far had such a beautiful trio from me and very probably have not published one to match it in the last ten years.”

Following his long-standing custom, Brahms tried out the C major Trio, along with the concurrently composed F major String Quintet, at private performances. The first trial took place on August 25 in Altausee, just up the river from Ischl, and the second at Billroth’s home in Vienna on October 19. In December that year Brahms paid Clara Schumann a surprise visit and was delighted to find her trying out the Trio with friends. Finally Brahms gave the public premiere on December 29 in Frankfurt. The work was well received, but Clara complained privately in her diary that Brahms’s playing had degenerated into “thump, bang, and scrabble”—one of the costs of giving up piano practice with his rise as a composer.

Though outwardly traditional in layout—sonata-form first movement, theme and variations slow movement, scherzo with trio, and rondo with some sonata features—the C major Trio shows Brahms at his most ingenious in regard to the execution of these structures. The first movement employs two main theme areas that each contain two main ideas. The robust opening idea remains the exclusive property of the violin and cello until the very end of the movement when the piano joins in lustily. One of the most unusual passages occurs in the development when, instead of the expected beehive of activity, Brahms slows down this main idea almost to a leisurely waltz. Another remarkable feature in this second part of the movement is the combining of development and recapitulation functions. Brahms closes with a substantial coda that again includes the “waltz” version of the opening theme, but varied as we have come to expect.

Brahms wrote a theme with a Hungarian or Gypsy flavor as the basis for his slow-movement variations. Clara commented particularly on the theme’s folklike nature, brought about in part by the octave doubling of the cello and violin and the short-long rhythms so characteristic of that style. In the course of the variations, Brahms, the supreme master of variation technique, varies not only the string idea, but the syncopated piano accompaniment. The last part of the theme—telescoped from eight to seven bars—shows just one facet of Brahms’s ingenuity, when halfway through he turns the previous material upside down. This inversion appears in each of the variations but the fifth, which signals finality and the onset of the coda.

The brief but powerful Scherzo is a gem. The furtive outer sections frame one of the most glorious trios Brahms ever wrote. The gorgeous interplay between the violin and cello produces exquisitely poignant tensions and relaxations as each phrase arches and subsides.

Brahms labeled his Finale giocoso or playful, and moments of wit indeed shine through, often based on the staccato pattern of the piano at the outset or on sudden contrasts. Nevertheless, the overall impression is one of restrained intensity that sometimes erupts passionately. Brahms adds to the movement’s aura of importance by affixing an extensive coda in which the slow, tender section near the end reminds us of his unexpected slowing in the first movement. Here it functions as the calm before the storm, which Brahms then unleashes with almost fierce merriment.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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