6 CD BOX SET: Brahms: Complete Piano Trios and Quartets
The Gould Trio have been at the forefront of the international chamber music scene for well over twenty years, and have been favourably compared to the Beaux Arts Trio in their heyday.
Comprising violinist Lucy Gould, cellist Alice Neary and pianist Benjamin Frith they are part of the 'Champs Hill family' of artists having made numerous recordings at the Music Room, including their critically acclaimed recordings of Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Mendelssohn, Maxwell Davies, Macmillan, Beamish for Champs Hill Records.
This 6 CD box-set brings together the complete Piano Trios, Quartets and Sextets by Brahms performed by the Gould Piano Trio with guest artists. Both versions of the Piano Trio No 1 are included in this set: the original version, written in his twenties, and the version he revised at the age of 56.
When CHR recorded the Brahms Piano Quartets with the Goulds in 2016, we thought it would be a brilliant idea to unite them with the Gould’s earlier Trio recordings of 2004/5 (originally released on Quartz, pre-dating the existence of Champs Hill Records), and to add the Kirchner Brahms-approved sextet arrangements; making an ideal six-CD ‘box-set’ of some of Brahms’ most luxurious chamber music from some of the most experienced and acclaimed Brahms chamber musicians.
At an attractive price-point, even listeners who may own one or more of the original Brahms Trios CDs should find this a desirable set.
“The Goulds have a generous, warm-hued view, finding a rich, golden sound with no want of fire or gossamer lightness when required.” - Classical Music magazine
Brahms was born at a time of sweeping social and political change. His family belonged to the struggling lower middle classes, rarely separated by more than a few days’ pay from financial hardship yet always sufficiently well employed to fund good schooling for young Johannes and his two siblings. Brahms’s musician father, Johann Jakob, moved to the Free Hanseatic City of Hamburg in 1826 to find work in the port’s inns and dance halls. He acquired citizenship four years later by joining the local militia as a horn player and soon settled down in marriage to Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen, an accomplished seamstress with an equally valuable gift for managing her husband’s carefree attitude to money. Both parents were determined that their first-born son would become a musician. They recognised the growing commercial demand for versatile musicians, like Johann Jakob Brahms, able to perform on a multitude of instruments and ever ready to supply the demands of musical fashion.
Hamburg’s maritime commerce, badly affected by the city’s occupation by Napoleon’s army and siege by Prussian and coalition forces in 1813, rebounded in the 1820s and 1830s thanks to its status as a free-tariff port. The arrival there of the first railway in 1843 accelerated trade with the rest of Germany, despite the imposition of trading duties by those mostly northern states affiliated to the Zollverein or customs union. Much was made by early biographers of Brahms’s humble background, although one part of their story – that prostitutes abused the prodigiously talented teenaged pianist while he played in dockside bars – has been revised or at least strongly challenged by recent scholarship. It seems that Johann Jakob Brahms played in rough dives during his early years in Hamburg but not his son; rather, according to one of Johann Jakob’s colleagues, ‘With the best will in the world I cannot recollect that Johannes played, as a young child, in Lokals [public bars]. I was daily with his father, and must have known if it had been the case. Jakob was a quiet and respectable man, and kept Hannes closely to his studies, and as much as possible withdrawn from notice.’
A late nineteenth-century photograph of Brahms’s birthplace in Hamburg’s Schlütershof im Speckgang was often used to underline the image of a great man born into poverty. The ancient half-timbered building, however, was almost certainly less ramshackle in the 1830s and the family moved long before it became a slum; in fact, Brahms spent his childhood’s formative years in a small but comfortable house at Dammtorwall in Hamburg-Neustadt, a short walk from Johann Jakob’s workplace at the Alster Pavilion.
Self-improvement mattered to the Brahms family. Books of poetry, literature and history, either borrowed or bought for a few pfennigs, provided the foundations of the large library that Brahms collected in later life and inspired his lifelong love of reading and learning. Thanks to good teaching, notably from Eduard Marxsen, he made rapid progress as pianist and aspiring composer. Brahms gave his first documented performance at the age of ten and made his recital debut in 1848, a year of political turmoil in Hamburg and revolution across Europe. He left secondary school when he was fourteen and began contributing to the family income by teaching piano and playing in restaurants for humble but respectable customers. Over the next five years he gradually made his mark as a virtuoso performer, attracting attention as a musician of formidable gifts and for his god-like beauty. His breakthrough came thanks to a Hungarian violinist, a refugee from revolution, who planned a short concert tour with Brahms in 1853 and introduced the young musician to his near contemporary Joseph Joachim, already one of Europe’s most famous violinists. Joachim and Brahms began a friendship that, despite a serious rift in the late 1870s, would last until the latter’s death forty-four years later.
Towards the end of 1853 Joachim introduced Brahms to Robert Schumann. Long before they met, and certainly before Brahms knew much of Schumann’s music, the teenaged musician from Hamburg recorded literary quotes by his idol in one of a series of notebooks. The older man’s reverence for the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann and fascination with his moody, music-obsessed alter ego Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler inevitably conditioned Brahms’s evolving attitudes to art. Brahms later marked individual movements in the manuscript of his Variations on a Theme of Schumann Op.9 with a ‘Br’ or a ‘Kr’ – one short for Brahms, the other for Brahms as the junior Kreisler – mirroring thereby Schumann’s own alter egos, the passionate and spontaneous Florestan and the introvert Eusebius, the fictional Davidsbündler of ‘League of David’.
Brahms first met Schumann and his wife Clara at their home in Düsseldorf in September 1853. ‘Visit from Brahms – a genius,’ noted Schumann in his diary the following day. The invention and originality of Brahms’s compositions captivated Schumann. He published his views a few years later in a short article for his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, presented under the title ‘New Paths’. ‘Many new and significant talents have arisen; a new power in music seems to announce itself; the intimation has been proven true by many aspiring artists of the last years…,’ observed Schumann. ‘To me … it seemed that under these circumstances a musician must inevitably appear, called to give expression to his times in ideal fashion; a musician who would reveal his mastery in a gradual evolution but one who, like Athena, would spring fully armed from the head of Zeus. And such a one has appeared …. His name is Johannes Brahms….’ The article praised the unique qualities of Brahms’s chamber works, piano pieces and songs, as if each flowed ‘from its own individual source’; he found, however, an essential unity that brought these works together ‘like a rushing torrent … into a single waterfall’.
Early spirit, late reflections
Robert Schumann’s backing propelled Brahms from obscurity to prominence within the musical life of Hamburg. For all the adulation and the thrill of being published for the first time, the young composer kept a level head. Brahms studied the art of counterpoint in fine detail, notably in correspondence with Joachim; he also cultivated what became a lifelong interest in early music and explored folk song, making many arrangements of the latter for his Hamburg Ladies’ Choir. The direction of these apprentice years was, above all, affected by news that Schumann had tried to take his own troubled life by leaping into the Rhine.
Schumann’s mental collapse in February 1854 prompted Brahms to travel to Düsseldorf to care for the pregnant Clara Schumann and her seven children. Brahms had recently completed the first version of his Piano Trio No.1 in B major Op.8 when the devastating news arrived of his mentor and friend’s attempted suicide. Although the emotional effects of Schumann’s slow decline towards death were reflected in a long period of creative silence, Brahms summoned the energy required to prepare his new Piano Trio for publication. The piece, issued in its original form in the summer of 1854 as Brahms’s first published piece of chamber music, received a radical revision thirty-five years later after the composer’s publishers acquired the rights to his first ten works and invited him to change them however he pleased.
Brahms proved ruthless in reshaping his Piano Trio No.1. He addressed old doubts about its content and structure, and rewrote most of the work, leaving only its Scherzo and the thematic material from the opening of its other movements intact. ‘Even for the mightily self-critical Brahms this was a surprising step to take, and one without many parallels in music history,’ notes Basil Smallman in his survey of the piano trio genre. The mature Brahms reflected on what he described in a letter to Clara Schumann as his early score’s ‘wild’ nature, a trait present in the formal contrasts of its five sections, its liberal use of quotes from Schubert and Schumann, and stylistic allusions to Bach, Mendelssohn and others. He completely recast its first movement, tightening the development of its song-like first theme and setting it in company with an equally lyrical second theme. While shorter in length than its predecessor, the revision is far more impassioned and intense in mood. The Scherzo, refined in its Mendelssohnian freshness and clarity, required little alteration, but Brahms was not so sparing of the Adagio, which lost one of its two interludes and gained a new, more introspective middle section. Cluttered first thoughts were also cut from the revised finale to make way for more straightforward thematic development, without loss of the movement’s restless spirit and forward momentum.
The Piano Trio in A major Op. posth. was attributed to Brahms at the time of its discovery in 1924, believed to be a survivor from the composer’s quality control bonfire, not least because of stylistic correspondences with the Piano Trio in B major Op.8. It has since been suggested, however, that the four-movement piece is the work of Schumann’s composition pupil Albert Dietrich. While questions of attribution may never be settled, it is fair to say that the score’s thematic invention and textural nuances are the work of a talented composer.
Big works for small forces
Following Schumann’s death in July 1856, Brahms continued his development way from the mainstream of German music-making. He found lucrative short-term work at the royal court of Detmold, a small duchy in northern Germany, and supplemented his income as pianist and conductor. The act of composition, once so fluent, became hard labour for Brahms, burdened by self-criticism and doubt. After five years of sketching and redrafting, he completed his Piano Concerto No.1 in 1859 and witnessed the failure of its first public performances. Chamber music provided the vehicle for a remarkable return to confidence in the following decade’s first half. Between 1859 and 1866 Brahms completed two string sextets, two piano quartets, works such as the Horn Trio and Sonata for cello and piano in E minor, and revised two earlier compositions to form a new piano quintet.
In the early 1860s Brahms was introduced to the organist and composer Theodor Kirchner. The two men shared an intense mutual dislike of the New German School of composition, which promoted a range of progressive attitudes in music, not least those represented by the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt and the more general expression of poetic ideas by Berlioz and Wagner. Brahms and Joachim had argued against this so-called ‘Music of the Future’, asserting that it ran ‘contrary to the inner spirit [or logic] of music’. Their views influenced Kirchner’s position and underpinned his friendship with Brahms, as did his veneration of Schumann. It was the older Kirchner’s musical gifts, however, that brought him closest to Brahms. In an age before sound recording, he became indispensable to Brahms and his publishers as arranger of the composer’s symphonic and many other works for solo piano. The trust between the two men registers clearly in a letter concerning Kirchner’s four-hand piano arrangement of Brahms’s Handel Variations Op.24. ‘Just do whatever you want with it all!’ wrote Brahms. ‘Double it, cut it, ornament it ….’
Kirchner staked his claim to the title of Brahms’s favourite arranger with exemplary treatments of the two String Sextets. The String Sextet No.1 in B-flat major Op.18 was completed in the summer of 1860, created for the rich scoring of two violins, two violas and two cellos. The invention and craft shown here by Brahms far exceed the limits set by the early version of his Piano Trio No.1 in B major; indeed, the work stands among the first fruits of the composer’s maturity, confident in its debt to Beethoven and Schubert, and playful in its echoes of Bach and the Baroque. The latter course through the work’s second movement, a stately Andante built on the ancient la folia tune, albeit modified in terms of its traditional meter and harmony.
Memories of Agathe von Siebold, to whom Brahms was secretly engaged in the winter of 1858-59, surface in the String Sextet No.2 in G major Op.36. The composer, apparently remorseful about ending their relationship, travelled to Agathe’s home town of Göttingen in the late summer of 1864. Recollections of happy times and of love lost coloured the songs Brahms wrote soon after his visit, Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen (‘To go to you no more’) deeply moving among them, and flowed into the composition of his sublime second string sextet. The latter contains a compelling opening movement built out of a two-note ostinato in the first viola part and a set of variations in its third movement based on a sketch Brahms had sent to Clara Schumann in 1855, an audible symbol of the deepest romantic attachment of the composer’s life.
The Horn Trio, composed in 1865 and published three years later, marked the end of the series of chamber works launched with the String Sextet in B-flat major. Brahms most likely had the sound of his father’s principal instrument in mind while writing the piece; the valveless or hand horn’s tone colour clearly played an essential role in deciding the composition’s content and form. In addition to paying homage to Johann Jakob Brahms, the Horn Trio also quotes from a folk song that Brahms learned from his mother during childhood, used here to connect the Adagio mesto to the work’s finale. Brahms, who completed the Horn Trio little over three months after her death in February 1865, possibly intended the slow movement to stand as an elegy to his mother.
Towards the end of 1862 Brahms received a professional setback in Hamburg and a critical triumph in Vienna. News reached Vienna that he had been overlooked for a much-desired conducting post at home just days before Brahms took the imperial Habsburg city by storm as pianist and composer in two concerts, the second of which included his Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor Op.25, the second his Piano Quartet No.2 in A major Op.26 and Handel Variations together with works by Schumann and Bach. ‘I played as freely as if I’d been at home with friends – but of course this audience stimulates a person very differently from ours,’ he wrote to his parents on 30 November 1862.
Vienna’s deeply knowledgeable audience and the opportunities the city offered contrasted with Hamburg’s public rejection of its greatest homegrown talent. The ‘gypsy’ Rondo-finale of the Piano Quartet No.1 Op.25, with its alla Zingarese imitations of cimbalom and fiddle, proved an instant hit with the Viennese, even though the critic Eduard Hanslick – of whom more later – found the work’s themes to be ‘insignificant … dry and prosaic’. Hanslick’s reservations matched those of Clara Schumann, pianist at the work’s premiere in Hamburg in November 1861. ‘The Quartet only partially satisfies me,’ she noted in her diary; ‘there is too little unity in the first movement, and the emotion of the Adagio is too forced, without really carrying me away. But I love the Allegretto in C minor and the last movement.’ Traces of Schubert, especially in the lyrical Andante con moto, also endeared the G-minor Piano Quartet to the Viennese public.
Brahms’s immersion in chamber music composition and knowledge of the chamber works of Beethoven and Schubert coincided with the rise of such ace ensembles as the string quartet founded by Joseph Hellmesberger in Vienna in the late 1840s. Hellmesberger and members of his eponymous quartet took part in both of Brahms’s Vienna debut concerts, joining the composer for the premiere of his A-major Piano Quartet in the hall of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde on 29 November 1862. The work, completed in the autumn of 1861, drew direct inspiration from Schubert’s melodic writing, clearly so in the open-hearted themes of its Scherzo and finale. Elements of the composition’s harmonic language and prominent use of block chords in the first movement recall late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century music for multiple choirs of voices and instruments, which Brahms had studied so thoroughly during the 1850s.
The Piano Quartet in C minor Op.60 began life in 1855-56 as a piano quartet in the key of C-sharp minor cast in three movements. Brahms abandoned the original version after overseeing several private performances. He probably destroyed the score after recycling parts of it as the first two movements of his Op.60 during the winter of 1873-74. The composer followed Joachim’s suggestion of transposing the piece to C minor and thereby making it friendlier to string instruments. The key of the newly crafted work ideally suited its intensity and, above all, supported the deep introspection and symphonic heft of its opening. Asked by a friend about the meaning of the original first movement, Brahms referred to the tragic closing chapter of Goethe’s Sturm und Drang novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. ‘Now imagine a man who is just going to shoot himself, because nothing else remains for him to do’. The quote has been linked to Brahms’s infatuation with Clara Schumann, at its height in 1856, and decision to sacrifice his love for her in favour of a life devoted to art. Whatever its personal associations, the line remains apt to describe the dramatic outbursts and thematic contrasts projected by the first movement of Op.60.
In the spring of 1863 Brahms was appointed director of Vienna’s Singakademie. The job, despite its low pay and tedious duties, influenced the composer’s decision to make Vienna home. Yet six years passed before the move became permanent, during which he yearned for Hamburg and spent much time visiting Clara Schumann at Baden-Baden. Brahms’s peripatetic lifestyle included extended summer breaks in the lakes and mountains of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, periods marked by extraordinary creativity and welcome conviviality. The demolition of Vienna’s old ramparts, meanwhile, opened the way to the city’s spectacular redevelopment, a process arrested but not stopped by the stock market crash of 1873. Despite many bankruptcies and failed businesses, the energy of industrialisation continued to drive the economy of Austria-Hungary and impart momentum to cultural enterprise. The year before ‘Black Friday’ hammered Vienna’s stock exchange, Brahms accepted the conductorship of the Vienna Philharmonic Society, an organisation comprising amateur musicians supported by professional players.
The first edition of Eduard Hanslick’s Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (‘On the Beautiful in Music’, published in 1854, fuelled a debate that resounded well into the next century. Music, Hanslick insisted, is powerless to express feelings (even though it clearly elicits emotional responses); rather, it consists in ‘tonally moving forms’, which possess their own unique musical beauty. His thesis regarded instrumental music as the ‘absolute art of tone,’ independent of literary texts or programmes. The listener’s response to such ‘pure’ music arose not from the dynamics of emotion and certainly not from any embodied engagement; rather it emerged from the depths of the imagination. While later revisions to Vom Musikalisch-Schönen suggest that Hanslick harboured doubts about music’s absolute autonomy, the book and its ideas inspired others to establish entrenched positions.
Following his favourable review of Brahms’s Vienna debut concerts, Hanslick forged a firm and lasting friendship with the composer. ‘Above all else,’ the critic noted, Brahms’s music shares with Schumann’s a sense of chastity, of inner nobility. There is no hint of vanity or preening affectation. Everything is sincere and true.’ Bruckner, an ally of Wagner and significant figure in Vienna’s musical life, was dismissed by Hanslick on the other hand as an incompetent. ‘We do not enjoy upsetting the composer, whom we respect as both a person and an artist, and is certainly serious about art, however little he may have to do with it,’ he wrote in the influential Neue Freie Presse after the premiere of Bruckner’s Third Symphony in 1877. Many years later he condemned the ‘nightmarish hangover style’ of the composer’s revised First Symphony, conceding that it could be ‘the music of the future’ before declaring that it would be ‘a future we do not envy’. Hanslick made no mention of Bruckner in his extensive memoirs, Aus meinem Leben, published in 1894; Brahms, however, was presented there in company with Beethoven and Schumann, creators of the highest achievements in musical art. Brahms and Bruckner, thanks to Hanslick, were cast as bitter enemies.
Their true relationship was more complex. Brahms, well known for his altruism, secured at least one commission for his older contemporary and persuaded the new director of Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde to programme Bruckner’s music. His private views, which became more embittered as Bruckner achieved popular success, appear to have been coloured in part by his attitude to Bruckner’s religious indoctrination and political conservatism. Bruckner, meanwhile, spoke respectfully of Brahms while commenting on the differences between their respective musical styles.
The Composing Life
Brahms was a man of regular, even rigid habits. He woke early, around 5am in summer, and prepared for a morning’s work by drinking large quantities of strong black coffee. At noon he would walk to a favourite restaurant – Vienna’s Zum roten Igel or ‘The Red Hedgehog’ for the last fourteen years of his life. An afternoon walk usually preceded a visit to an evening concert and a late meal with friends at a beer hall or modest hostel. In contrast to the established order of his daily routine, Brahms changed accommodation many times during his early years in Vienna. He finally settled at a small furnished apartment on the Karlsgasse in 1872, close to the baroque Karlskirche. He continued the pattern of taking long summer retreats to the country, creating ideal conditions for composition and relaxation. According to his close friend, the baritone and conductor George Henschel, Brahms came fully to life away from the city. ‘Brahms is looking splendid,’ recalled Henschel of a shared vacation on the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea. ‘His solid frame, the healthy, dark-brown colour of his face, the full hair, just a little sprinkled with grey, all make him appear the very image of strength and vigour. […] His appetite is excellent. He eats with great gusto and in the evening regularly drinks his three glasses of beer, never failing, however, to finish off with his beloved Kaffee.’
In June 1880 Brahms travelled to the Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl, summer home to Emperor Franz Joseph and the imperial family. The composer, now at the height of his inventive powers, was delighted by Ischl. He marked his visits by working on the Piano Trio No.2 in C major Op.87, the first movement of which had been drafted in Vienna in March 1880. Ideas for the composition developed slowly. Brahms decided to abandon work on a piano trio in E-flat major in the winter of 1880 in favour of its intended companion in C major; did not return to the latter, however, until he returned to Ischl in June 1882. The formal ingenuity, brilliant thematic development and expressive variety of the C-major Piano Trio match the best of the piano trios of Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert; indeed, some critics have argued persuasively that Brahms’s Opp.87 & 101 piano trios stand as the genre’s highest achievements.
The C-major Piano Trio arises from a theme of heroic grandeur, a melodic idea of Olympian strength and power, stated in unison by viola and cello and soon enhanced by sonorous piano writing. Brahms imparts high energy to the first movement, not least by exploiting the tensions inherent in the prominent use of a rising semitone interval and the possibilities it opens to complex chromatic harmonies. The work’s slow movement comprises a set of five variations on a short theme in folksong style, its Hungarian flavour underlined by the determined independence from the piano part upheld throughout by the two string instruments, even during the reflective penultimate variation, a Brahmsian intermezzo in all but name. Shades of Mendelssohn scamper over the C-minor scherzo’s dashing surface, beneath which Brahms extends a daringly unstable foundation of chromatic harmonies and unpredictable key relationships. The finale substitutes genial humour for the scherzo’s wildness. Its essential character derives from Brahms’s playful development of multiple themes, punctuated by modified reprises of the movement’s principal theme and crowned by a closing summary of melodic and harmonic ideas from earlier in the movement and the wider composition.
Chamber music now fell by the wayside as Brahms worked on symphonic compositions and began his close association with the excellent court orchestra at Meiningen. After completing his third and fourth symphonies in the summers of 1883 and 1885, he took to a rented villa in the Swiss resort town of Hofstetten in the summer of 1886. Here he composed three magnificent chamber works: the Cello Sonata in F major Op.99, the Violin Sonata in A major Op.100 and the Piano Trio No.3 in C minor Op.101. The latter emerged as the clear companion piece to the Piano Trio No.2 in C major, superseding Brahms’s rejected piano trio in E-flat major. Brahms took the piano part for the work’s first performance in Budapest in December 1886, in company with the violinist Jenő Hubay and the cellist David Popper, among the greatest virtuosos of the age.
Basil Smallman writes of ‘the sovereign nature of Brahms’s technique at this period’, and identifies it at its best in the scherzos of Opp.87 & 101. The striking contrasts of texture and ideas in the later piano trio, delivered within a simple ABA structure, bear witness to the composer’s total mastery of his craft and genius of his invention. The C-minor Piano Trio left a profound impression on Clara Schumann. ‘What a work it is, inspired throughout in its passion, its power of thought, its gracefulness, its poetry,’ she recorded in her diary in June 1887. ‘No other work of Johannes has so completely transported me; so tender is the flow of the second movement, which is wonderfully poetic. I am happier tonight than I have been for a long time.’ Although considerably shorter than Brahms’s two earlier piano trios, the C-minor Piano Trio is no less rich in ideas and arguably even more powerful in its range of expression. And Brahms achieves all this with remarkable economy, by building each movement from concise themes and developing them within clearly defined structures: sonata form for the two outer movements, ternary form for the ethereal second movement, and a tripartite song form for the slow movement. The latter’s irregular meters, alternating between one bar of 3/4 and two of 2/4 time, connect with the composer’s passion for folk music in general and Serbian song in particular. Brahms closes the work with yet another display of rhythmic and formal ingenuity, exploring metrical shifts in 6/8 time over the course of a concise sonata form finale.
With the death of friends and old age bearing heavily upon him, Brahms decided that the time had come to retire from composition, although not before completing his Clarinet Trio, Clarinet Quintet and two Clarinet Sonatas. The inspiration for these four late masterworks was provided by Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinettist in the Meiningen orchestra. In March 1891 Brahms made a week-long visit to the court at Meiningen where, not for the first time, he was enchanted by Mühlfeld’s playing; he later described the clarinettist as ‘simply the best master of his instrument’. It seems likely that the clarinet’s melancholy qualities matched Brahms’s state of mind; at least, the private performance Mühlfeld gave for the venerable composer, complete with Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet and Weber’s clarinet concertos, appears to have convinced Brahms that he should extend the player’s repertoire. When he was next in Meiningen in November 1891, Brahms presented Mühlfeld with the scores of the Clarinet Trio in A minor Op.114 and the Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op.115, both completed in Ischl during the summer. Mühlfeld, Brahms and Robert Hausmann gave private performances of the Clarinet Trio on 21 and 24 November, before presenting its public premiere in Berlin the following month.
The Clarinet Trio, like the Piano Trio in C major Op.87, grows out of thematic material of the utmost simplicity, stated by solo cello and extended in dialogue with the clarinet and piano. Brahms treats the first movement’s main theme to prolonged contrapuntal development, occasionally lightening the music’s specific gravity with a songlike episode for cello or clarinet. The Adagio amounts to a study in textural and tonal contrasts, presented as a wordless song that threads through each instrumental part, while the opening of the Andante grazioso echoes the waltz craze so expertly serviced in Vienna and beyond by Brahms’s famous colleague and friend Johann Strauss II. A venerable Viennese Ländler evokes times past in the third movement’s Trio section, providing a charming preface to the bucolic energy of the work’s rondo finale.
Clara Schumann’s death in May 1896 prefaced the diagnosis of Brahms’s terminal illness and slow decline from cancer of the liver. He died in his modest lodgings at Karlsgasse on 3 April 1897, receiving a hero’s funeral at the city’s central cemetery three days later. The ships in Hamburg’s harbour lowered their ensigns to half-mast to mark the composer’s passing.