Well, we’re drawing to the end of another Dessoff Midwinter Festival, with our final concert on Sunday evening at Symphony Space. There are only two pieces on the program, both by Brahms– the Sonata for Two Pianos in F Minor, Op. 34b and the “London Version” of the Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45. In these final two blog entries, I’ll be posting the program notes in advance, as well as links to various recordings of the different versions.
Program Notes for Two-Piano Sonata:
One of the most distinctive aspects of Brahms’ compositional output is that, although he obviously grew and matured as a composer throughout his career, there is a certain unity of style that runs through all of his works. One reason for this is that unlike many other Romantic composers, Brahms remained steeped in the classical forms throughout his life, preferring to develop his musical language within 18th-century architectural structures. But another reason is that Brahms was an inveterate reviser of his own music, so even the late compositions often came from versions explored earlier in life. Discovering these connections has provided much fodder for the musicological mill. Brahms famously destroyed early drafts of his compositions once he no longer needed them, so retracing the palimpsest of a published work often presents challenges. Luckily, the revisions in tonight’s repertoire present no such difficulties: they are two of the rare instances in which Brahms allowed a work to be published in more than one version.
At the risk of sounding flippant, Brahms’ beloved Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, scored for string quartet with piano, might be considered a “Goldilocks” composition. It was the result of dissatisfaction that Brahms felt with two earlier versions: the first, for string quintet (quartet with an extra cello), he felt wasn’t quite effective enough; the second is the elegant version presented this evening, the Sonata for Two Pianos in F Minor, Op. 34b, which he found lacked something of the sweep provided by the strings. Clara Schumann, always the person to whom Brahms turned for feedback on his compositions, admired both early versions. However, after playing through the two-piano sonata, she wrote Brahms: “It is masterly from every point of view, but it is not a sonata—but a work whose ideas you might—and must—scatter over an entire orchestra.” Brahms did not orchestrate the work, instead returning to his earlier idea of writing for strings (without the second cello, which had muddied the texture) and keeping one of the pianos for the final version. What is perhaps most interesting is that he chose to publish the two-piano sonata in addition to the piano quintet, suggesting that he still valued this second version.
I have to admit that the F Minor Piano Quintet is my favorite piece of chamber music; I first fell in love with it from a recording by Christoph Eschenbach with the Amadeus Quartet. Here is a link to the full recording; if you wish to compare it to the two-piano version below, go to 23:39.
In recent years, I have especially enjoyed the several performances that my colleague from the Hotchkiss Summer Portals program, pianist Melvin Chen, has given with several different quartets– particularly a memorable performance with the Shanghai String Quartet a couple years ago. What a piece! The clip of the piano sonata version below is played by one of my very favorite pianists, Emanuel Ax, collaborating here with Yefim Bronfman. The third movement particularly lends itself to Brahms’ pianistic writing.