Cellist Denis Brott is recognized on the international stage as one of Canada’s finest and most distinguished performing artists. His discography lists 20 chamber music recordings, including the complete [...]
They spoke about it
The piano was without a doubt the main source of inspiration for Brahms’ imagination, and the instrument was, indeed, the center of gravity of his work.
Brahms, however, showed great interest throughout his life for chamber music. While it is true that his personality drew him more toward the lyrical than the dramatic, his reluctance with regard to instruments with which he was not familiar prevented him from taking on projects for which he did not feel adequately prepared. In this sense, chamber music was also experimental grounds for him. Brahms proved to be frugal when it came to using the various colors and technical possibilities of instruments, and only used them when he could submit them to his creative will. He completely rejected all semblance of spectacular virtuosity, even going so far as to call Liszt “a charlatan.”
In the works of Brahms, there is a constant concern for balance between inspiration and science, between emotion and reason. In 1862, Brahms wrote the first three movements of the Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Opus 38. He completed the work in 1865 in Karlsruhe, during a visit to his friend Julius Allgeyer. Before having it published, however, he withdrew the Adagio originally intended for the work.
This sonata, therefore, does not have a slow movement. Brahms had difficulty in getting the work published. Two editors refused it; finally, Simrock agreed to publish it in 1866 (Brahms had reassured him, claiming that the piece was easy!). The work was dedicated to Dr. Josef Gänsbacher, whose influence won Brahms his appointment as head of the Singakademie in 1863. More than a sign of his thanks, the dedication is a tribute to Gänsbacher’s musical talents as both a singing teacher and accomplished cellist.
Many have seen in this sonata an homage to J.S. Bach, whom Brahms truly worshipped. The first theme of the finale does show a close link with the Contrapunctus XIII of Bach’s Art of Fugue. Because of its freshness and spontaneity, its atmosphere which recalls legends and Nordic ballads, the sonata has been nicknamed the “pastoral sonata.”
The Sonata for Cello and Piano in D major is a transcription of the Sonata for Violin in G major, Op. 78. The question of who actually wrote the transcription has been a source of great controversy among music scholars. For many years, it was thought that Brahms himself had written it. Those who favored this hypothesis cite as proof, letters from Brahms addressed to his publisher Simrock, in which he asks that his name not be mentioned as the arranger, on the pretext that “the mastery of the work will speak for itself.”
There is, however, no mention anywhere that this refers to Opus 78, and for good reason: these letters predate its composition by several years. Today, it is thought that the transcription is the work of German composer and conductor Paul Klengel (1854-1935), older brother of cellist Julius Klengel, whose name appears on the cover page of an 1897 edition. (It is worth noting that Denis Brott has made several minor changes at the end of the second and third movements to more accurately reflect what Brahms wrote in the original version for violin.)
Brahms completed the Sonata, Opus 78 during the summer of 1879 in Pörtschach, Carinthia, where he was staying for the third summer in a row. It has been nicknamed Regensonate (rain sonata) because of the use of motifs borrowed from the tenor lied, Regenlied, Opus 59, composed in 1873 (Clara Schumann was always deeply moved by the melody of this lied and it is possible that Brahms wanted to pay tribute to his dear friend in writing this sonata). After an elegant and expressive Vivace ma non troppo, comes a moving Adagio, of which Elisabeth von Herzogenberg wrote, in a letter to Brahms dated November 24, 1879, that, “When I play the last part of this Adagio, with its celestial fermata which I make last as long as possible, I feel that you are a good man.” The first theme of the finale — its melody and accompaniment — is that of the Regenlied. This piece, which Clara Schumann found particularly touching, caused her to confide to Brahms, “… you can imagine my delight when, in the third movement, I found my beloved melody again… I say ‘mine’ because I don’t believe there is another person who can experience the melody as [both] blissful and melancholy as I do.” According to Clara’s wishes, this piece was played at her funeral.
Each spring, Brahms left the city to spend some time in a quiet, peaceful spot where he could satisfy his need for solitude, compose without worry and indulge in his passion for nature walks. He could well have made his own the motto of his friend, the violinist Josef Joachim, Frei aber einsam (free but alone). In 1886, he settled for the summer in the little Swiss village of Hofstetten, on the shores of Lake Thun. He spent the next two summers there, and it was one of the most productive periods of his life.
Emerging from his isolation, Brahms frequently went on weekend visits to his friend Widmann, who lived in Bern. Widmann left us several important details about Brahms’ life at this period: his love of reading, his deliberately casual way of dressing (which he considered as an affirmation of his freedom), and his insatiable curiosity about everything that touched the great outdoors, the arts and technology, particularly the great innovations of the day, such as Edison’s electricity and phonograph.
It was during the summer of 1886 that Brahms wrote his Sonata for Cello and Piano in F major, Opus 99. The first reading of the work no doubt took place at the home of Widmann, but it wasn’t until November 24 that the first public performance took place. Brahms was at the piano and his friend Hausmann played the cello.
Contrary to the Sonata, Opus 38, which was a great success right from the start, this new sonata was criticized and took some time before becoming accepted. This was mostly due to Brahms’ unusual and innovative treatment of key relationships which definitely did not follow established rules, as is evident in the opening Allegro vivace, where F major meets F-sharp major. This piece, energic and tormented, even heroic in character, uses the sonata form with three themes. The remarkable Adagio affetuoso, in lied form (ABA’), which follows, offers an enchanting contrast to the preceding piece with its plaintive, poetic and great lyricism. The Allegro appassionato is a thrilling, rhythmically driven Scherzo whose central trio is lyrical and tenderly melodic. It concludes with a rather brief rondo treated with great simplicity, as if a popular tune.
Note: The desire to bring these three sonatas together, coupled with timing limitations of the CD format, forced us to omit the repeats of the first movement, in both the Opus 38 and Opus 99 Sonatas.