Overwhelmed by a Sparkling Trio of Divine Length

After the concert. © Charles Thibo

You probably know this feeling: You have been to an extraordinary concert, you exit the concert hall, dumbfounded, unable to cast into words what you just heard. Here is a piece that has this effect upon me each time I listen to it: Johannes Brahms’ Piano Trio in B major, Op. 8. The emotional impact it has upon my soul and my body is hard to explain – an overwhelming experience every single time.

But Brahms was sceptic. He wrote this trio in 1854 and he was reluctant to have it published. In 1853 Robert Schumann had applauded Brahms’ creativity and Brahms felt a certain pressure. “After your publicly praised me, the audience will have such high expectations that I feel unable to live up to them […] I think I will not publish any of my trios. You will understand that I will do my best not to disavow you”, he wrote in a letter to Schumann. And once Brahms had published the trio he told his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, that some revisions were indispensable.

Brahms and the cornucopia

The musicologist Siegfried Oechsle has found a lovely description of one of the elements that make this piece so extraordinary: “To the describe the sparkling abundance of themes [in a book] would resemble serving champagne in a thimble.” A multitude of thematic ideas, one more artful than the other, rousing, charming, melancholic – a chain reaction of Romantic expressiveness. I will say no more about the structure of the piece, this is a work where words fail me, and you will have to discover what you like best all by yourself. I recommend the recording by the Florestan Trio.

Ironically it was one Brahms’ most intimate friends, Schumann’s wife Clara Wieck, that found something to gripe about. She deemed the first movement not well written in terms of harmony and counterpoint and outright rejected it after a house concert at Joachim’s place in Hanover in November 1854. The fact that this trio lasts some 43 minutes did not worry her. The young Brahms with his disarming nonchalance counted on the benign acquiescence of Schumann who, some 15 years earlier, had praised the “divine length” of Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major. Nevertheless, in 1889 Brahms completely overhauled the trio; it is the latter version that is usually performed today.

The revision of 1889

From the middle of his career on, Brahms self-criticism in relation with his earlier works led to the destruction of many scores. The Trio in B major is the only early work that underwent a complete revision. “I have rewritten Op. 8 and I can call it no Op. 108”, he wrote in a letter to Clara Wieck. And to his publisher Fritz Simrock he wrote: “With respect to the overhauled trio I must stress, that although the old one was bad, the new one is not necessarily good. What you do with old one, I don’t care. […] It will never sell well … because of the many unnecessary difficulties.” Oh boy!

So what about the version of 1854? It has survived. It has been performed and recorded. By Joshua Bell, Jeremy Denk and Steven Isserlis. And the Trio Testore has recorded both versions on one record. And I love both. The later version perhaps a little better. Or the first? How should I know when overwhelmed by that “sparkling abundance of themes”?

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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