Trio in A minor for viola, cello, and piano, Op. 114
April 2, 2023: ETTORE CAUSA, VIOLA; PAUL WATKINS, CELLO; BORIS BERMAN, PIANO
As mentioned above (see the Sonata, op. 120, no. 2), Brahms was convinced that the G major String Quintet of 1890 would be his last composition, yet the following year he became so inspired by the clarinet playing of Richard Mühlfeld in Meiningen that he wrote four more works, all featuring the clarinet. For all of these works he broadened their appeal by also writing versions featuring the viola in place of the clarinet.
Brahms wrote a rather humorous letter to Countess Heldburg, wife of Count Meiningen, on July 25, 1891:
I wish to invite myself to Meiningen! For once this is not out of pure egotism! I must tell you in secret how much I have thought of you and worked for your welfare. Entre nous it has not escaped my notice that you have a “penchant” for the Right Honorable Richard Mühlfeld. I have seen you try to pick him out in the orchestra; last winter I was able to bring him into the limelight with the Weber Concerto, but now I can produce him properly and in secret. He can sit on one of your chairs; you can turn over [turn pages] for him and make your vows during the pauses allotted to him! To this end I must tell you that I have written a Trio and a Quintet in which he has to play.
Brahms wanted to try the works out in Meiningen comfort before presenting them in Vienna. His longtime but sometimes estranged friend Joseph Joachim, the celebrated violinist, begged to be present at the trial and played in the Quintet. Brahms performed the Trio on November 21 with Mühlfeld and the superb Berlin cellist Robert Hausmann, and on November 24 the Quintet was tried. Both performances took place at parties given by Countess Heldburg. Joachim liked both works so much that he arranged their first public performance on one of his Berlin Quartet concerts, December 12, with Brahms again playing the piano part in the Trio. Both works were extraordinarily well received.
The Trio and Quintet contain some of Brahms’s most formally skilled and impressive music, yet both, especially the Trio, are tinged with melancholy. The Trio’s opening and closing movements are both in sonata form, both are in A minor, and both contain second themes that are presented by the cello, then by the clarinet with the cello echoing the theme canonically upside-down. Brahms strove to make the lower-ranged cello an equal partner with the clarinet, and indeed the cello presents not only the second theme but begins the introduction—alone and in high register.
The first movement shows Brahms’s penchant for fashioning a first theme group out of several contrasting ideas. This not only provides great resources for development but also enables him to disguise the recapitulation by beginning with an idea from the first theme group, but not necessarily the initial one. The movement closes with fluid whispered scales and arpeggios.
The serene slow movement in D major epitomizes Brahms’s late period conciseness, unfolding in only fifty-four measures. It gives the impression of a ternary form, but also contains elements of sonata form.
A leisurely scherzo-alternative, the Andante grazioso presents a clearer ternary structure, with the meter and ambiance of a waltz or Ländler. The unhurried simplicity of the opening gives little hint of the movement’s scope, in which Brahms gently indulges in his love of metric play.
The Finale offers intriguing rhythmic organization, with the opening notated both in 2/4 and 6/8 meter. The second theme, with the canonic continuation mentioned above, switches to 9/8. Brahms plays with the form by bringing back the first theme directly after the exposition, almost as if the exposition were to be repeated or as a rondo refrain. The development ensues, however, rich in modulation through Brahms’s favored descending chains of thirds. The recapitulation then begins where the “false return” left off. The work closes resoundingly and seriously in A minor.
© Jane Vial Jaffe