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
Leonora Armellini Winner of “Janina Nawrocka Award” for her “remarkable musicality and beauty of sound” in the International F. Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw (2010), Leonora Armellini was born in Padua (Italy) in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from the Padova Conservatory at the age of 12 with Laura Palmieri (a student of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli) and she then won the first prizes at the “Premio Venezia” (2005) and at the “C. Togni” International Piano Competition in Brescia in the section piano and orchestra (2009). Finalist at the LXI Busoni International Piano Competition, she achieved many awards for her qualities and artistic career such as the “Galileo 2000” for her “great courage and talent”, received by Zubin Mehta. She graduated summa cum laude at the age of 17 at the National Academy of S. Cecilia in Rome, under the guidance of Sergio Perticaroli and her artistic development is also influenced by Lilya Zilberstein (Musikhochschule Hamburg) and Boris Petrushansky (Accademia Pianistica “Incontri col Maestro”, Imola). She made more than 500 public appearances in important concert halls and festivals worldwide (Carnegie Hall - New York, Mariinsky Theater - Saint Petersburg, Salle Cortot - Paris, National Philharmonic - Warsaw, Teatro La Fenice – Venice, Steinway Hall - London, Tongyeong Concert Hall – South Korea, Musashino Concert Hall - Tokyo, Millennium Monument Theater – Beijing, Martha Argerich Project – Lugano, to name a few). Leonora performed as a soloist with many orchestras, (Orchestra Teatro "La Fenice" di Venezia, Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto, Orchestra dell'Arena di Verona, Orchestra da Camera del Teatro "Alla Scala" di Milano, Warsaw Philharmonic, “Sinfonia Varsovia”, Cracow Philharmonic, Ukraine National Orchestra, Belarus Symphonic Orchestra, …) conducted by Alexander Rabinovich-Barakowsky, Jacek Kaspszyk, Ola Rudner, Andrea Battistoni, Claudio Scimone, Zoltan Pesko, Anton Nanut, Christopher Franklin, Massimiliano Caldi, Christian Benda, etc. Leonora plays regularly as a member of the “AMAR Trio”, winner of the prestigious “Abbiati Prize” for chamber music assigned by Italian Association of Music Journalists. She has recorded many CD, including the two Chopin Piano Concertos and the complete Album for the Youth by Schumann, and a lot of her concerts and interviews were broadcast by Italian and international TVs and radios: worth to mention are her appearance as a special guest in “Sanremo Festival” 2013, broadcasted worldwide by RAI TV, and the recitals for “I Concerti del Quirinale” in Rome for RAI Radio 3. She wrote a book in collaboration with Matteo Rampin, “Mozart era un figo, Bach ancora di più”, reprinted five times and translated in Spanish.
Mattia Ometto "Mattia Ometto is a pianist with a marvelous sensitivity, one of those artists whose responsibility is to make audiences perceive what real talent is”" (Aldo Ciccolini, pianist – Paris) The winner of a vast array of national and international prizes both in Europe and United States, Mattia Ometto is quickly establishing himself as an artist whose gifts hark back to the Golden Age of classical piano performance, gift that reflects an artistry that is formed in equal parts by the inspiration derived by his Venetian background, and the influence of his studies in Paris with the legendary Aldo Ciccolini, and in Palm Springs with the american virtuoso Earl Wild. Mr. Ometto performs regularly in Europe and United States. Following his recital debut in Paris at the Théatre du Rond Point des Champs Elysées and in New York City at Carnegie Hall, he appeared both in recital and as soloist with orchestra in New York (Carnegie Hall, Bargemusic), New Jersey, Des Moines (Sheslow Auditorium), Boston (Rivera Hall), Venice (Gran Teatro la Fenice), Berlin, and also in Los Angeles with the Lyric Symphony orchestra, in Ankara (Turkey) with Academic Baskent Orchestra, in Vidin (Bulgaria) with the Vidin State Philharmonic Orchestra, just to name a few. Broadcast of Mr Ometto's performances and interviews have been heard on numerous radio stations, such as BBC London, Kulturradio Berlin, Rai International, Radiotre, Raitrade, Radio della Svizzera Italiana, Radioclassica, Radio Romania, Iowa State Radio, Kanal B Ankara, WGBH Boston. His discography comprises the critically acclaimed recordings of the complete set of Melodies by César Franck and Henri Duparc (Brilliant Classics) and the World Premiere Recording of the complete music for two pianos and piano four-hands by Reynaldo Hahn recorded with the legendary pianist and Liszt scholar Leslie Howard (Melba Recordings). Mattia Ometto and Leslie Howard are currently working on the recording of the Complete Music for two pianos by Franz Liszt (9CDs) Born in Padua in 1982, Mattia Ometto graduated summa cum laude from the Venice Conservatory of music where he studied with Anna Barutti. Very active also as a teacher he gives master classes as a visiting artist at Drake University in Des Moines (Iowa), Redlands University, International Institute for Conductors in Vidin (Bulgaria) and Accademia della Musica in Padua. Mattia Ometto is professor at the “J. Tomadini” Conservatory in Udine and at the ”C. Pollini” Conservatory in Padua.
Johannes Brahms: (b Hamburg, 7 May 1833; d Vienna, 3 April 1897). German composer. The successor to Beethoven and Schubert in the larger forms of chamber and orchestral music, to Schubert and Schumann in the miniature forms of piano pieces and songs, and to the Renaissance and Baroque polyphonists in choral music, Brahms creatively synthesized the practices of three centuries with folk and dance idioms and with the language of mid- and late 19th-century art music. His works of controlled passion, deemed reactionary and epigonal by some, progressive by others, became well accepted in his lifetime.