The third annual Dessoff Midwinter Festival comes to an end this Sunday evening with our performances of two “second life” Brahms compositions– the Sonata for Two Pianos in F Minor (see previous post) and the “London Version” of Brahms’ immortal Deutsches Requiem. Interestingly, the manuscripts for both pieces are housed in the United States; the sonata score is in the Morgan Library here in New York, and the Requiem score is in the Library of Congress. You can see the whole score online at their website.
Here are two clips so that you can compare the “London Version” to the original orchestral version. I’ve always loved the sixth movement myself. Obviously the full orchestration is immensely powerful when all hell breaks loose (“Death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory?”), but it must be said that Brahms’ piano writing is also tempestuous! The Klemperer recording is still one of my favorites, and I was thrilled when I went looking for a YouTube version of the four-hand transcription to find a recording conducted by an old graduate school classmate and friend, Jeff Bernstein. Here are the two for comparison, followed by Sunday’s program notes.
Hope to see you at the concert on Sunday!
Program Notes for Requiem:
The Sonata for Two Pianos in F Minor is by no means the only time that Brahms wrote for two pianists, on either one or two pianos. The Hungarian Dances are an absolute staple of the piano duet repertoire, and the Liebeslieder Waltzes for voices and four-hand piano continue to be performed often (Dessoff last performed some of them in 2011). During Brahms’ lifetime, the piano reached the apex of its popularity as the instrument for home and salon music-making; in this period before recordings, volumes of four-hand arrangements of all the major Classical and Romantic symphonies were very popular. In this context, it is not surprising that Brahms would have created a four-hand piano accompaniment for his Ein deutsches Requiem, for a chamber concert in London in 1871. For that performance, at the home of surgeon Sir Henry Thompson (whose wife, Kate Loder, joined Cipriani Potter at the piano), the text was sung in a now-lost English translation. As is often done in current performance practice, we present the Requiem in its German version, in the absence of that authoritative original English version.
There is little evidence of the genesis of the Requiem as a whole—neither Brahms’ reasons for writing the work (it was not commissioned), nor for the origins of the musical material. The one clear exception to this is the second movement, which provides a fascinating glimpse into Brahms’ willingness to recast his musical ideas into radically different forms. This movement, often called a “slow scherzo”—a funeral march, but in triple meter—went through many versions on its way to theRequiem. Especially interesting in terms of our use of four-hand piano tonight, it originated as a two-piano sonata, just as the F Minor Piano Quintet had. Brahms realized that the material was more symphonic in nature, so he worked the material into a symphony before revising it again to become his first piano concerto. He then returned to the abandoned symphonic draft to create the second movement of the Requiem.
There are other “second life” aspects of the Requiem. Its first version, premiered in Bremen in 1868, did not include the beautiful fifth movement for solo soprano and choir, a movement often associated with the death of Brahms’ mother in 1865. It was not until 1869, with a performance by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, that the now-final version was first heard. And even then, there is some evidence that Brahms would have liked to make further revisions, as he often did later in his life with earlier works. But the Requiem had become so popular by then that it didn’t make sense to alter it. One change that he did make in a subsequent edition of the piece was to remove the original metronome markings, not so much because he disavowed his choice of tempi, but because he had come to distrust the inelasticity of the metronome. Those original metronome markings are striking however; they are often conspicuously faster than the tempi that many 20th-century conductors chose to interpret the tempo markings he substituted using German and Italian phrases. For this evening’s concert, we have used Brahms’ original metronome markings as a departure point for our interpretation.
For both compositions on this evening’s concert, listeners might be tempted to see the piano versions as somehow “less” than their better-known counterparts. This may be true on one level (the piano colors in the Requiem can’t match those of the orchestration), but it is still fascinating to see how Brahms, a very fine pianist himself—and a composer who wrote so powerfully for four-hand piano—approached these works in such a pianistically-conceived way. The inner voicings, always so complex and texturally dense in Brahms’ writing, take on new aspects and reveal hidden characteristics when viewed from a different perspective. What is lost in sweeping string gestures is somehow compensated for in the intricacy of the piano writing, as well as the insistence of the rhythmic elements so aptly conveyed by the piano. And surely Brahms must have thought these two “second life” compositions conveyed something important: for a perfectionist composer who destroyed so many drafts and versions of his music, the decision to release these would never have been taken lightly.