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Brahms’ connection with the repertoire for two pianos was somewhat delicate. Only two pieces stand out officially in his catalogue – Both on this disc, and both adaptations of other works: The Variations on a theme by Haydn op. 56b and the Sonata op. 34b. Strictly speaking, these versions should not be called “adaptations”, neither from the orchestra nor the quintet op. 34a, for two simple reasons: both predate the final outcome, and both are perfectly suitable for performances, which is their usual use indeed.

Such is the case of Sonata in F minor op. 34b; it is neither an adaptation from the famous Quintet for piano and strings nor a preliminary version to be instrumented; it is the umpteenth experimentation on the timbre of the German composer. Brahms began in 1861 with a string quintet version – with two cellos, in accordance with Schubertian model – at the same time as the First Symphony. It represented one of many Brahms’ digressions that led to completion of the first symphonic masterpiece. The breath of the first version of the Quintet was also symphonic, but the strings alone could not suggest the magnificence of the original idea, so it was destroyed before publication. In 1864, a second and more complete version for two pianos followed, and it was performed with Carl Tausig. Undoubtedly the piano was more comfortable to Brahms, who still had to compose his quartets and quintets for strings. This version suggests the power of the rhythmic impulse, vital to the whole work, matching its majesty perfectly. Interestingly, both early versions were intended for instruments with a thoroughly smooth sound. Perhaps for that reason, taking into consideration the advice of Hermann Levi and Clara Schumann, Brahms decided to merge the versions, and in 1865 he wrote the final Quintet for piano and strings. The newest piece combines the feisty incisiveness of the piano to the rich timbre of the strings. Despite the relevant criticisms of the two above-mentioned musicians, the version for two pianos is anything but imperfect and recently has been the subject of lots of attention. It was no coincidence that in 1871 the two pianos version was published by the composer (the Quintet op. 34a was published six years before.) Like any piece by Brahms, the piano writing preserves the composer’s style, and keeps the symphonic yearning: research and variation at once. What it has just said is already in the opening theme, solemn and quivering, all at the same time. It persists throughout the first movement, more an orchestra than two pianos. The second movement benefits from an intimate and unobtrusive piano writing, although the soft mix of the strings is lacking. Brahms remodels the music material wisely and with extreme naturalness, from the lyrical mood to the concert expansiveness that the Sonata possesses. This emerges in the vigorous last two movements. In the Scherzo the stubborn rhythmic contrasts beautifully with its majestic chords, and the percussiveness of the instrument matches perfectly the Beethovenian’s obsessive riff, that can be traced also in Brahms’ Piano Sonatas. In the Finale introduction, Poco sostenuto, the two pianos show perhaps a few limits, as the tension of the strings finds here an extraordinary rendition indeed. But the sensation soon disappears, thanks to the effectiveness of the rhythmic drive in the dark and fierce Allegro non troppo, where a syncopated finale closes this masterpiece with peremptory tragedy.

Likewise, the Variations could appear superficially a piano adaptation or an edition for two pianos to be orchestrated later. It is indicative that the author published as first the piano version in 1873, and then the orchestral version in 1874, but their first performance was switched. The two pianos version has always stated a concert nature that transcended the tradition of playing the latest symphonic works on two pianos or piano four hands within the home. Even the Four Symphonies were not dissimilar: with his understanding of the instrument, Brahms wrote concert pieces for real, working backwards. In the Variations the piano imprint immediately appear clear and perfectly accomplished. As usual for Brahms, the symphonic nature is a thought, an ideal path that inevitably courses through piano and chamber music, before reaching the orchestra. The story of Variations on a Haydn’s theme is quite well-known: Brahms took the main theme from Pleyel’s Divertimento for wind in B flat major, at the time erroneously attributed to Haydn. Pleyel’s theme stemmed from an Austrian choir however, the “Chorale in honorem St. Antonii”. Complying with the original title, some modern editions indicate the composition also as “Saint Anthony Variations” for this reason. The work had a major role in the production of Brahms, providing the orchestral piece directly before the Symphony No. 1, which he finished three years later. It was the last step of a journey started with the Two Serenades, through the Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 1, the Deutsches Requiem, the Cantata Rinaldo, the Rhapsody for Contralto, Male Choir, and Orchestra, and finally caught up with the Variations. It is not surprising that all these works have a soul linked to chamber, piano or vocal music: the renowned Brahmsian prudence has always pushed him to choose a well-acquired base before potentially proceeding with experiments. The choice of orchestral variations is interesting anyway. The Brahms-Haydn, as they are often called, are counter-balanced by the Brahms-Händel and the Brahms-Paganini. Composed in early 60s as well as the Sonata op. 34b, they became a chance of instrumental and compositional exploration. The principle of variation is essential in Brahms’ symphonic thought, it transcends the instrumentation and in its concise clarity is discernible in these eight Variations and Finale. After an initial and square exposition of the Chorale, follow the first Variation, Andante con moto, where the theme performed by the first piano is joined by the triplets of the second piano, creating immediately a rhythmic displacement so dear to Brahms. The second Variation, Vivace, is vigorous and full of contrasts, with dotted rhythm against staccato and sudden changes of dynamics. In the Third, Con moto, dolce e legato, the character of the Chorale resurfaces, embellished by counter melody, piano arabesques and with a dialogue between instruments. More melancholic is the Andante in B-flat minor that constitutes the fourth Variation, in which the essentiality and clarity of polyphonic lines, together with dark staccato octaves, show an orchestral nature. The Fifth, Poco Presto, gives an ideal answer to the previous variation, with its nimble double thirds, upbeat accents, and acephalic triplets. The Sixth Variation is a bold and strong Vivace, where the sturdy beginning has found a perfect match in horns. The Seventh Variation, Grazioso, is a Sicilian lullaby which constitute the sweetest and most singular moment of the whole piece (Note the small addition of the mordant on the first octave of the theme, not present in the symphonic version.) The Eighth Variation, Poco presto, is a soft rustling, sempre mezza voce e legato, in which the two pianos follow each other in constant parallel motions and rapid imitations, until they fade into nothingness. From that nothing starts the passacaglia, which leads to the Finale. This ending is a cycle of variations on variations. Using the bass of the Chorale, Brahms created the conclusive, expansive, and joyful appearance of the “Chorale in honorem St. Antonii”, in a rapture of broken octaves, chords and rapid scales.

This rapid observation about Brahms-Haydn cannot be considered, however, without look up to the impeccable balance between the two pianos. Almost all the Variations are structured in two parts, with alternation of the two performers in the distinctive elements, like the triplets of the first variation or the double thirds of the fifth one. Brahms was concerned to divide evenly the single parts, in the sub-variations of the Passacaglia too, exalting throughout the piece the intensive dialogue between the two instruments. Therefore, despite some fragments certainly predict an orchestration in progress, the Variations are one of the cornerstones of the repertoire for two pianos.

Album Notes by Alessandro Tommasi

Translation by Theresa Williams

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