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Featuring both solo piano and cello sonatas, David Finckel and Wu Han pay homage to the enduring legacy of Johannes Brahms with this ArtistLed release.

Johannes Brahms
Sonatas for Cello and Piano

Six Pieces for Solo Piano
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in e minor, op. 38
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in F Major, op. 99
Six Pieces for Solo Piano, op. 118


Wu Han (piano), David Finckel (cello)


Notes on the Music:

by Patrick Castillo

Johannes Brahms
(born Hamburg, 7 May 1833; died Vienna, 3 April 1897)

In a time when cults of devotees gathered around Wagner’s revolutionary music-dramas, Brahms established himself as an important contemporary musical voice by working within Classical forms. The violinist Josef Hellmesberger, after reading Brahms’s Piano Quartet in g minor, eagerly exclaimed, “This is the heir of Beethoven!” Like Mendelssohn before him, Brahms felt no obligation to alter the course of history: for the purposes of his musical expression, the forms that served the imaginations of Mozart and Beethoven would suffice. Following the death of Robert Schumann in 1856, Brahms emerged as chamber music’s most significant voice (especially given the indifference of Wagner and his acolytes towards the composition of string quartets). Brahms’s chamber works reflect the essence of his creativity as thoroughly as his orchestral pieces and embody the spirit of the second half of the nineteenth century. But despite his adherence to the past, Brahms’s music nevertheless points forward as well. Schoenberg counted Brahms among his greatest aesthetic influences, and expounded on Brahms’s advanced technique of “developing variation” (Schoenberg’s phrase) in his famous essay “Brahms the Progressive.”

Sonata for Cello and Piano no. 1 in e minor, op. 38

Composed: 1862-1865. Brahms completed the first two movements in the summer of 1862 in Münster am Stein; the finale was composed three years later while the composer summered in Lichtental (Baden-Baden).

Published: 1866, Simrock (Berlin), after a refusal by Breitkopf & Härtel.

Other works from this period: These years surrounding the first Cello Sonata saw a good deal of chamber music from Brahms’s pen, including the Piano Trios in B Major, op. 8 (1854), and E-flat Major, op. 40 (1865); the Sextets in B-flat Major, op. 18 (1860), and G Major, op. 36 (1865); and the Piano Quartets in g minor, op. 25 (1861), and A Major, op. 26 (1862). The summer he began work on the first Cello Sonata, Brahms also began the String Quintet in f minor, op. 34, and drafted a symphonic movement. As he served as a choral director in Hamburg, his other works from this time also include the sets of partsongs, opp. 41 (1862) and 42 (1861).

First performance: January 14, 1871, at the Gewandaus in Leipzig, by cellist Emil Hegar and pianist (and concertmaster of the Gewandhaus-Orchestra) Carl Reinecke.

Brahms composed the first two movements of the Cello Sonata no. 1 (his first work for a solo instrument with piano) while in his late twenties. By this time, Brahms had already composed a great deal of chamber music (see above) and become sufficiently well-versed in the nuances of writing for individual instruments. In the summer of 1862, Brahms visited the Lower Rhine Music Festival in Cologne, and spent the following weeks on holiday with the conductor and composer Albert Dietrich and Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann’s widow. The vacation was a happy one: Brahms and Dietrich spent the days hiking and composing; in the evenings, Clara—one of her generation’s greatest pianists, and a gifted composer in her own right—would play.

Brahms revered Bach above all composers (it can be safely surmised that he was aware of the Baroque composer’s Cello Suites while composing his own Cello Sonatas) and paid homage to him with the e minor Sonata. The principal theme of the first movement resembles in shape and mood the fugal subject of Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue), and the fugal subject of the third movement directly quotes the same work’s Contrapunctus XIII. Nevertheless, in his late twenties and early thirties, Brahms the young Romantic had already established his voice with such confidence that despite the explicit nod to a past master, the language of this Sonata is unmistakably his own.

An insistent, syncopated piano accompaniment underscores the cello’s brooding opening melody, creating a feeling of inner agitation. This tension culminates as the cello ascends to its upper register (m. 16), and as the piano assumes the theme, the first of a series of heated arguments between piano and cello begins (m. 25). A yet more impassioned dialogue follows (m. 54), ushering in the second subject. Commentary on the two Cello Sonatas of Brahms often makes note of the inherent problems of sonic balance in pairing cello with piano (as dense keyboard textures easily drown out the cello’s middle register). Throughout this opening Allegro non troppo, Brahms makes a virtue of the challenge, often pitting the two instruments as combatants in contentious dialogue. The development section avoids danger as well, exploiting the extremes of the cello’s range to symphonic results. The conflict dissipates with the appearance of cascading triplets in the piano (m. 141), and after a full recapitulation, the movement ends serenely in E major.

Although composed before Brahms’s move to Vienna, the second movement minuet parleys a distinct Viennese flavor: exuberant, but with a tinge of darkness more evocative of Mahler than of the waltzes of Johann Strauss. The heart of the movement is the divine trio section (m. 77), which departs from the key of a minor to the even more mysterious, remote tonality of f-sharp minor. The cello offers a lyrical melody, doubled by a shimmering accompaniment in the right hand of the piano: rippling sixteenth notes give the effect of a voice-like vibrato in the piano.

The finale is a three-voiced fugue, in turns gentle and unrelenting. The movement is indebted not only to Bach, but also to the fugal finale of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata, op. 102 no. 2. Brahms departs from that model, however, by traversing more extreme emotive territories. Following the intensity of the opening episode, the music takes a tranquil, pastoral turn (m. 53); the next instance of this romantic dance-like music is interrupted by a reappearance of the fugal opening (m. 132). After building to an even greater climax (m. 169), the storm dissipates, teasing the listener with the expectation of a somber ending. But the surprise appearance of a piú prestocoda (m. 175) drives the work to a restless finish, the cello and piano continuing their battle for supremacy to the end.

Sonata for Cello and Piano no. 2 in F Major, op. 99

Composed: Following the Cello Sonata no. 1, op. 38, the F Major Sonata did not appear for another two decades: Brahms completed this work in the summer of 1886 while vacationing in the Swiss Alps.

Published: 1887, Simrock.

Other works from this period: Brahms’s summer holidays were in fact very productive working vacations. The summer of 1886 also saw the completion of the Violin Sonata in A Major, op. 100, and the Piano Trio in c minor, op. 101. The following year, Brahms would complete another seminal contribution to the cello repertoire, the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, op. 102.

First performance: November 24, 1886, in Vienna, by Robert Hausmann with Brahms at the piano.

Brahms spent the summer of 1886 in the idyllic Swiss resort town of Thun. He rented the second floor of a hillside house on the Aare River, and spent much of the summer at a local casino, drinking beer and playing cards with musicians from the house orchestra. He wrote happily to his friend Max Kalbeck, “It is simply glorious here. I only say quite in passing that there are crowds of beer-gardens—actual beer-gardens—the English [tourists] are not at home in them!”

The F Major Cello Sonata was composed for Robert Hausmann, a close friend of Brahms and cellist of the great Joachim String Quartet. Like the violinist Joseph Joachim and the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, Hausmann served Brahms as the prototypical performer-muse, very directly inspiring Brahms’s cello writing over the last decade of his career. By all accounts, Hausmann played with a remarkably burnished tone and ample technique; Brahms’s writing suggests that Hausmann had no trouble negotiating the cello’s highest registers, nor rising above the clanging fortissimo chords in the piano. Brahms’s facility with instrumental technique is similarly evident in the striking tremolo across the strings, taken from the piano’s opening gestures, which Brahms uses to end the exposition [00:00], and then echoes at the haunting end of the development section [00:00]. (It is also interesting to note that, despite that mastery Brahms had achieved in writing for the cello by the time of this work, as well as the Double Concerto the following year, he still was not satisfied. Upon hearing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto of 1895, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why on earth didn’t I know one could write a violoncello concerto like this? Had I only known, I would have written one long ago!”)

At the time of the F Major Sonata’s premiere, the conductor and critic Eduard Hanslick wrote, “In the Cello Sonata, passion rules, fiery to the point of vehemence, now defiantly challenging, now painfully lamenting. How boldly the first Allegro theme begins, how stormily the Allegro flows!” Indeed, Brahms’s writing at this stage in his career evinces a sense of daring often overlooked in the dichotomy between a Brahmsian conservatism and Wagnerian progressivism.

The Sonata unfolds with a bristling energy, with a jolting explosion in the piano answered by a triumphant cry from the cello. The opening Allegro vivace’s central theme comprises these shouting fragments, rather than a continuous melodic line. Remarking on its unusual rhythms and bold melodic leaps, Schoenberg would later write: “Young listeners will probably be unaware that at the time of Brahms’s death, this Sonata was still very unpopular and was considered indigestible”—a useful reminder to the contemporary listener, for whom this work fits well within common practice, that Brahms was nevertheless a “progressive” composer (Wagner and company notwithstanding). The movement’s harmony is similarly insolent, handily integrating dissonant tones, and flirting with minor key tonality throughout the exposition.

The work’s harmonic boldness carries into the Adagio affettuoso, which begins in the surprising key of F-sharp major, a half-step from the key of the opening movement. Hypnotic pizzicati mark time under the melody in the piano before Brahms again employs the cello’s luminous upper register to sing a long phrase which climbs passionately, before settling into a sweet lullaby (00:00). The movement is organized into ternary (A-B-A) form: as in the first movement, the harmonies throughout the central B section are exquisitely rich. A moment of mystery presages the appearance of the troubled and turbulent middle section.(00:00) After a jarring transformation of the cello’s opening pizzicati, (00:00)  the music of the opening returns, beautifully decorated by a flowing accompaniment in the piano. Music of heavenly serenity closes the movement.

The fiery scherzo recalls Brahms’ ebullient Hungarian dances, with its chromatic melodic turns and hard syncopations. The trio section (00:00) lends the movement a lyrical tenderness, but still with dense chromatic chords in the piano accompaniment.

Brahms the extroverted Romantic emerges in full form for the Sonata’s finale, which seems to go from gesture to gesture and episode to episode with an excitedly child-like impatience. The subject’s pastoral melody offers a contrast from the ferocity of the previous movements. Soon after the opening, however, the music builds to a crisp march, (00:00) heralded by staccato double-stops in the cello. The next episode departs from the movement’s idyllic quality dramatically with a lyrical melody in b-flat minor, suffused with nineteenth-century sturm-und-drang. (00:00)  The piano’s sweeping triplet accompaniment leads seamlessly into a restatement of the theme (00:00) (now in the foreign key of G-flat major), against which Brahms sets a charming pizzicato commentary. The movement ends triumphantly in a flourish and with great abandon.

6 Pieces for Solo Piano, op. 118

Composed: 1893

Published: 1893, Simrock.

Other works from this period: Brahms completed the op. 118 set as part of a concentrated wave of piano miniatures composed from 1892 to 1893. A total of twenty such pieces have come down to us from these two years, though Brahms almost certainly composed more, which he likely destroyed. (Brahms is notorious for foiling the efforts of many music historians by having burned reams of letters, drafts, and any evidence of works he considered less than satisfactory.) The autumnal tone of Brahms’s later years is also captured in the Clarinet Trio, op. 114, and Clarinet Quintet, op. 115, both composed in 1891, and the two Clarinet Sonatas, op. 120, of 1894—all inspired by the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld.

The piano was Brahms’s instrument. And like fellow composer-pianist Beethoven (the giant whose footsteps Brahms admitted to hearing behind him throughout his creative career), Brahms poured into the piano some of his most deeply felt personal statements. Like Beethoven, Brahms’ oeuvreof piano works falls neatly into distinct stylistic periods which outline his compositional trajectory.  The first group of piano works—composed throughout the 1850s and early 1860s includes three large scale sonatas (opp. 1, 2, and 5), the Scherzo in e-flat minor (op. 4), and two sets of variations on themes by Handel (op. 24) and Paganini (op. 35). Though skillfully crafted, these works make extreme and virtuosic demands of their pianist. They betray Brahms as a brash young Romantic, as eager to announce himself to the piano literature through these works as Beethoven through his own early Piano Sonatas, opp. 2 and 10.

The Eight Pieces, op. 76, of 1878, herald a new stage in Brahms’s piano style. With this set, Brahms discovered a genre in which he would continue to feel at home throughout the rest of his career: compact, self-sustaining miniatures, devoid of thematic connection from one to the next. The remainder of his solo piano offerings comprises similar sets to the op. 76 pieces. The autumnal Six Pieces, op. 118, illustrate the character of all these latter works: subtle, yet immediately emotive, and each with its distinct personality.

The Six Pieces, op. 118, traverse a broad emotive landscape, from its fist-shaking opening to the morose finale in e-flat minor. The musicologist Michael Steinberg has written of these pieces: “Here, in these late musings of a keyboard master who had discovered how to speak volumes with the sparest of gestures, we find the essence of Brahms.”

Composed in the summer of 1893, op. 118 and the four pieces of op. 119 were sent as a gifts to Clara Schumann immediately upon their completion. Brahms biographer Jan Swafford has surmised, “he may have composed the pieces to try and keep Clara Schumann going in body and soul. Since she could only play a few minutes at a time now, and because she loved these miniatures so deeply, maybe they did keep her alive.”

Swafford also surmised that the young pianist Ilona Eibenschütz, whose exquisite pianism and feminine charms enchanted the composer equally, may have inspired the genesis of these lyrical, heartfelt utterances. (Eibernschütz premiered opp. 118 and 119 in London in 1894 and recorded a number of Brahms’s late piano pieces.)

Throughout the Six Pieces, as in all the late piano works, Brahms favors A-B-A form. He marks the opening Intermezzo “Allegro non assai, ma molto appassionato”—Not fast, but very passionately. This turbulent vignette fluidly integrates rhythmic and harmonic tension at the start of the B section (m. 11): cascading eighth-note runs disrupt the rhythmic motif established in the opening measures. A series of diminished-seventh chords (a favorite of the Romantic composers for its unresolved pathos) harmonically reinforces the passage’s anxious forward motion. (00:00)

While the op. 118 pieces share no thematic connections, it is likely that Brahms grouped and sequenced them with clear and deliberate intentions. The first miniature of the set, for instance, ends triumphantly in A Major, thus preparing a seamless transition to the much beloved Andante teneramente that follows in the same key. This tender Intermezzo resembles the Songs without words of Mendelssohn, whose piano music certainly influenced Brahms. Of a similar poignancy is the A section of the F Major Romanze (no. 5), a hymn-like chorale marked by rhythmic ambiguity (shifting between groups of two and three beats). A dreamy Allegretto grazioso section (00:00) offsets this reverent music.

Nos. 3 and 4 of the set likewise offer their fair share of magical moments. Witness the inspired key change from g minor to B Major in the g minor Ballade (m. 41), as well as the transition back to the A section in the f minor Intermezzo (m. 92).

A haunting theme, evocative of the ancient ‘Dies irae’ chant, opens the final intermezzo (no. 6). Brahms introduces the melody as a stark, unaccompanied line, marked sotto voce. Low, rumbling arpeggiations in the left hand heighten the music’s angst. The ‘Dies irae’ theme reappears in menacing octaves before a B section of Beethovenian drama (m. 41). But unlike Beethoven’s prototypical heroic journey, which follows elegy with transcendence, Brahms’s final measures here remain funereal.