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Trio in B Major, Op. 8, for violin, cello, and piano

October 18, 2009 – David Chan, violin; Jeewon Park, piano, Rafael Figueroa, cello

Johannes Brahms’ Piano Trio, Opus 8, is in many respects a paradoxical work. Progressing from a radiant B major to a tragic B minor, the piece juxtaposes passages of luxurious warmth and optimism and music of turbulence and despair. It is also, in the version heard most often today, simultaneously one of Brahms’ earliest and latest works.

He had already started composing the trio in 1853, when the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim gave the 20-year-old Brahms a letter of introduction to Robert and Clara Schumann. Brahms’ meeting with the Schumanns at their Düsseldorf home marked an important turning point in his life and career. The Schumanns received him with enormous enthusiasm and generosity. They invited him to stay with them for several weeks, initiating a close friendship that would last for the rest of their lives. Schumann wrote glowingly about the younger composer in his influential journal The New Leipzig Musical Times, and he introduced Brahms to the head of the prominent music publishing firm Breitkopf & Härtel. This greatly enhanced Brahms’ prospects for a successful composing career.

The following February, while still working on the trio, Brahms received the distressing news of Robert Schumann’s suicide attempt. He hastened back to Düsseldorf to comfort the Schumann family. It was under those dark circumstances that he completed the piece later that year. Perhaps this brush with tragedy associated with his mentor altered the emotional trajectory of the work, diverting it from its luminous B-major beginning and setting on the course towards its stormy B-minor conclusion.

Toward the end of his life Brahms, now the most respected of living composers, changed music publishers. Fritz Simrock bought the rights to all of Brahms’ works from Breitkopf & Härtel for the purpose of publishing them in a new edition. Simrock offered Brahms the opportunity to revise some of his earliest works for the release of the new edition. Brahms, ever the perfectionist – he had burned his first twenty string quartets and postponed composing his first symphony until his mid-40s – decided to revisit his 35-year-old trio, Op. 8.

After performing the new version in 1890, Brahms wrote to a friend, saying, “Do you still remember the B major trio from our early days, and wouldn’t you be curious to hear it now, as I have (instead of placing a wig on it!) taken the hair and combed and ordered it a bit…?” This was quite an understatement. In fact, he had shortened the overall length of the work by a third, substantially rewriting the middle sections of the first, third, and fourth movements. Only the Scherzo remained essentially unchanged from its original version. The final work seamlessly blends the impetuosity and passion of his youth with the technical assurance and architectural mastery of his maturity.

The first movement begins like a cello sonata, unleashing a glorious cello melody that continues for 23 measures before it is finally joined by the violin. The atmosphere of the movement is wise and reassuring, demonstrating that, even at an early age, his musical sensibilities were already well-formed and recognizably “Brahmsian.”

The Scherzo begins in a stealthily portentous B minor. Compressed staccato phrases are interwoven with longer thematic threads that foreshadow surprises ahead. Sudden fortissimo outbursts crash through the texture, dissolving into delicate piano filigree and quiet passagework in the strings. The contrasting trio introduces a melody of expansive warmth and maturity.

The third movement alternates between solemn piano and string chorales, eventually blending the two into a sustained, meditative texture. The music then gives way to a long-lined, soulful cello solo. The solemn chorale textures return toward the end of the movement, now accompanied by ethereal ornaments in the right hand of the piano.

The final movement is a musical battle between hope and despair. A quietly agitated opening explodes into major-key passages of great exuberance and exultation. Finally, though, the music retreats back into agitation and concern, and the trio concludes in a burst of stormy, B-minor turbulence.

By Michael Parloff

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