FL 2 3167

Brahms: Sonatas for Cello and Piano

Release date April 15, 2003
Album code FL 2 3167
Periods Romantic

Album information

Brahms Sonata in E Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 38

As ruthlessly critical of his own work as he was tolerant of the compositions of others, Johannes Brahms destroyed at least three sonatas for violin and piano prior to completing Opus 38. This work for cello and piano is the first of seven in the genre that he considered worthy of inclusion in his oeuvre, a collection that includes three sonatas for violin, two for cello, and two for clarinet. The composition of this work coincides with Brahms’s initial attempt to secure the directorship of the Vienna Singakademie in 1862, though it was not completed until 1865, by which point he was fully entrenched in his new function.

Truth be told, the E minor cello sonata actually owes its existence to Brahms’s Viennese post: it was written for the person who most aggressively supported his candidacy for the position in a process that involved some controversy between two parties. The more conservative of the two lobbied for the appointment of a traditional Viennese native, while the more modern faction pressed urgently for Brahms, who they identified as a “path breaking” leader, echoing the sentiments of Robert Schumann’s celebrated article of 1853.

Heading up the second of the parties was Dr. Josef Gänsbacher, a lawyer by trade but whose passion for music would later lead him to abandon a career in law for a professorship in voice at the Vienna State Conservatory. Gänsbacher also played the cello, and it was for this new friend and ally that Brahms composed Opus 38. Both composer and cellist held the musical works of previous generations in high esteem (Gänsbacher’s father was a personal friend of Haydn and Beethoven), and this may have affected the final form adopted for the work. Brahms initially planned four movements for the piece, from which an adagio was later removed, the end result being a sonata made up of three allegros that delivers a triple homage or tribute to earlier masters. Cast in a Beethovenian sonata form, the first begins with a theme that recalls the third fugue or contrapunctus subject from J.S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, while the menuet character of the second also reaches backward in time to invoke the style of Haydn and Mozart. References to Bach are laid bare in the third and final movement: the initial theme is an almost complete quotation of the thirteenth fugue subject, again from

The Art of the Fugue; and the whole is spun out, appropriately so, in fugal form. An anecdote that has grown up around this work underscores its typically Brahmsian style. Apparently Gänsbacher’s enthusiasm for the music far outstripped his technical abilities. At the first read through with the composer at the piano, the cellist complained of being buried under the weight of the piano part and of being unable to hear himself. Brahms replied, not without irony, “Isn’t that your good fortune!” But for all its good humour, this anecdote underlines the important role reserved for the piano part, endowed as it is with an uncommonly dense polyphonic texture. Brahms conceived it, literally, as a fine cloak for the voice of the cello, a sound that emerges through the texture, gently propelled by the radiance of its warm and voluptuous timbre.

Sonata in F Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 99

The second of Brahms’s two sonatas for cello and piano, this work came into being in 1886, more than twenty years after the first (Opus 38). But unlike its earlier counterpart, which was immediately well received, this later attempt in the genre was less readily admitted in musical circles. For it went against the grain of Classical convention, mainly with respect to its succession of keys, both within and amongst individual movements. More conventional compositions of the day incorporated modulations to the dominant, subdominant, or relative major or minor. However, in the opening F major “Allegro Vivace,” a movement structured in a particularly energetic and tormented sonata form incorporating a three-way thematic dialogue, a disproportionate amount of the development is cast in F-sharp minor.

The “Adagio Affettuoso” which follows has a clearly defined song or ternary design (A-B-A’), a form that makes plain a shift to F minor, framed as it is by two nearly identical sections in F-sharp major. The result is a linking effect of the keys from the first two movements, a permutation game that recalls the rhetoric of the mirror: F major/F-sharp minor in the first versus F-sharp major/F-minor. Brahms pursues this dialectic in the final two movements, but by bringing listeners gradually back to the opening F major. A shift from F minor to F major distinguishes the trio from the outer sections of the scherzo or “Allegro Passionato,” while the “Allegro Molto” finale (a rondo) is set in the F major of the opening movement, with a central passage that bows to tradition, this time in the sub-dominant (B-flat minor). Brahms made an honest effort to account for his tonal choices, drawing on unorthodox passages from the work of Haydn as examples. This argument fell mainly on deaf ears, no audience could appreciate the work for what it was: a fascinating study in the many tonal, modal, and chromatic aspects of a simple and single pitch.

Sonata in D Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 78

A transcription of the G major violin sonata (Opus 78), the Sonata in D Major for Cello and Piano was published during the composer’s lifetime. Nonetheless, to this day some doubt as to its author continues to persist. The original violin version, completed in 1879, was the first to meet with Brahms’s uncompromising approval. Subtitled Regen-Sonata (The Rain Sonata), each movement of the work draws on motives taken from Brahms’s Regenlied (Op. 59, No. 3). The piano introduction to the lied serves as the source for the pulsing dotted rhythms permeating the elegiac theme first introduced in the violin at the opening of the opening “Vivace Ma Non Troppo.” This rhythm reappears in the central, more dramatic “Piu Andante” section of the “Adagio” that follows—a dreamy and melancholic movement in song form (A-B-A). The complete and unadulterated vocal theme is then integrated in the “Allegro Molto Moderato” finale.

Some commentators have suggested that the work contains an encoded poetic programme. But according to Hanslick (celebrated music critic and fierce opponent of facile musical anecdote, who also hailed Brahms as the champion of “pure” or instrumental music), the composer was merely “unconsciously surrendering himself to a memory.” Unconscious or not, the return of this thematic reminiscence from one movement to the next only enhances the nature of the sonata as one manifestly saturated with the atmosphere of Klaus Groth’s poem that Brahms had previously made plain in the music of his lied.

© Guy Marchand, January 2003, for Traçantes, writing service of the Société québécoise de recherche en musique. (Translation © Catrina Flint, for Traçantes)

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