Brahms, Piano Trio No. 2 in C, Op. 87

Johannes Brahms, 1833-1896

Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87, 1882

BrahmsWith the juxtaposition of Haydn and middle period Beethoven, it is easy to hear Brahms’s second piano trio and recognize yet a third distinctive chapter in Viennese chamber music. Within an otherwise classical genre constructed with all the formal integrity it historically demands, a highly romantic voice surges through this work pointing even further towards the late harvest of the fin de siècle. Written in 1882 when Brahms was forty-nine, the Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 75 is a mature work coming after the piano quartets, the piano quintet, the string sextets and all three string quartets. Since the familiar version of the first Piano Trio in B-flat Op. 8 was the product of extensive revisions nearly ten years later in 1891, this “second” trio might effectively be regarded as Brahms’s first unequivocal masterpiece for the piano trio, unequivocal to Brahms himself, one of the most notorious and unrelenting self-critics in all of classical music history.

mountainsThe first page or so of the opening allegro establishes an astonishingly vast scale of expression in several ways. The principal theme makes large leaps in an ever upward motion that stretches even further with sinuous chromaticism for several bars before its momentum is transferred to the piano where it sweeps upward again in a series of accelerating arpeggios that ultimately alight on a massive dominant chord. Another full page of music builds to a restatement of the opening theme now confidently beaming an octave higher than before. There is an expansion of ensemble that progressively grows along the same path: first the strings in unison, then a contrapuntal splitting of ways finally joined by the glorious blossoming of piano in the most romantic style. This “swoon” of music is a signature for the entire movement; an iconographic sketch of the sonata from an eagle’s eye view would show three or four mighty swells with the intermediate relaxations required for their articulation. Typical of Brahms, the sonata offers a wealth of themes—at least four distinct ideas that are closely related and expertly joined. As the music is a heady swirl of motion and color, so too is the form of the movement, a marvelously organic continuity endlessly varied without revealing any sectional seams. As he had done before in the first piano quartet, like Beethoven in the first of the Razumovsky quartets, Brahms leads us to what sounds like the repeat of the exposition only to dodge and plunge breathlessly headlong into development. The music waxes and wanes, departs and reiterates until reaching a significant coda, the launch pad for a final gesture. A final swell, and it ends back at the beginning, the opening theme succinctly and finally closed on a simple perfect cadence.

The second movement andante presents a forlorn theme and five variations in A minor. With ever changing facets, Brahms, a master of variation, renders a richly diverse palette of piano trio sounds and textures, an ensemble with a powerful unity yet, due to its sparseness and the distinctive timbre of its constituents, always an intimate braid of three individual strands. Effects range from emphatic song to tragic might and yet again to soft whispers, six stanzas of musical poetry. A set of variations always includes one that shifts the mode for contrast or, in the case, relief: as the initial theme and four variations are in a minor key, Brahms switches to a vividly soothing A major for the penultimate variation wherein the theme is miraculously disguised, brand new yet coherently familiar. A metric shift from 2/4 to 6/8 adds an undulating grace while imbuing the final sorrow with heartbreaking grace.

JetsonsThe presto scherzo restores the momentum with a sharp, nimble lightness that evokes Mendelssohn for a second time in this program. With a marking both composers have shared under such circumstances, sempre leggiero (always light), Brahms places a terrible onus on the pianist to apply extraordinary effort to achieve an effortless sound. The trio is mellifluous and bountiful with layers of melody piling up and down in waves until they fade back into the spiky, nervous scurry of the C minor scherzo. The finale returns to C major with a quirky main theme under the musical direction giocoso (playfully). The key feature of the melodic contour is a wayward sharpened fourth degree of the scale that leaps to the sixth before settling down to rest at the fifth. The numerology is not important, but the sound may tickle with familiarity: the same melodic contour is a signature of numerous cartoon theme songs including the Simpsons and the Jetsons. While there is indeed a playful spirit abounding, the rich sonorities, inventive variation, exotic atmospheres and calculated breakthroughs of Brahmsian grandeur make this fluid rondo a satisfying and ultimately noble finale.

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