Few composers are as “Romantic” as Johannes Brahms, but Brahms’ Romanticism is unique under many aspects. First, Brahms lived considerably longer than most composers of his era, especially those of the first Romantic generation. This allowed him to see through a much greater evolution in style and taste (of which he was also responsible, of course) than most of his older colleagues. Secondly, he did belong in the second generation of Romanticism, but was also rooted in the past: in the near past, particularly thanks to his years under the mentorship of Robert Schumann, and in the more distant past, particularly through his constant, passionate and careful study of the music by Bach and Beethoven.
The stylistic evolution witnessed, and partly created, by Brahms is paralleled by his own personal evolution as a man and as an artist. Brahms was exceptionally careful and exacting with himself, never allowing a piece of his own to be published until he was satisfied with it, and decidedly sacrificing manuscripts we would love to set eyes on when he found them lacking. Thus, and in spite of his enormous talent, which showed itself already at a very young age, his output was not immense. He hesitated before presenting to the wide world the fruits of his creativity, and frequently allowed years to pass before tackling a certain form or genre, or before licensing a work he had already created and almost finished.
From the viewpoint of his biography, he entered the musical world as an impetuous, fiery and passionate young man, about whom Schumann wrote a memorable article by the title of New Ways. His quintessentially Romantic nature expressed itself through marked contrasts and oppositions, broad melodic lines, wide leaps and harmonic explorations. Still, the powerful decidedness of his writing did not conceal his more intimate sensitivity, and a trait which we might interpret as uncertainty and the fascination for the unknown, i.e. the abundant and almost iconic use of hemiolas. Hemiolas are a rhythmical phenomenon whereby, for instance, two bars having three semiminims each (i.e. written in 3/4) can be read as three bars in two (i.e. 2/4). The resulting ambiguity was an effect Brahms frequently sought for, perhaps cherishing the aspect of indeterminacy it conveyed. Thus, the composer whose passionate soul often seems to dive headfirst in the depths of music was also a musician who loved the unsaid, the unspecified.
In fact, this is the other point about Brahms which is worth mentioning him: the capricious and vehement character of his youthful years progressively gave way (though never entirely) to new palettes of nuances. First, there was the already mentioned influence from the past, which Brahms cherished deeply. Under this viewpoint, he – at the same time – was and was not a Romantic: he was a Romantic since Romanticism valued the distant past, especially the Middle Ages; he was not a typical Romantic since he lacked the rejection for the recent past which inflamed many of his contemporaries and colleagues. Second came an elegiac mood, permeated of an inexpressible nostalgia. Here too we find traits which are exquisitely Romantic, and others which do not fit perfectly within the given mould. On the one hand, nostalgia is perhaps the Romantic feeling par excellence, particularly in the form of Sehnsucht, the untranslatable German word indicating longing, yearning, nostalgia, regret. On the other, Brahms not only yearns for a (mythical or at least dreamy) future, but seems to look back to the past with as much regret as he desires the unattainable infinity of the possible.
Brahms thus wavered between (or rather reconciled with another) the opposing traits of tradition and revolution, of plaintive nostalgia and of a desire for “changing things”, of the sunset’s calm hours and of midday’s passions.
All of this is found in his two magnificent Cello Sonatas, which can rightfully be considered as the most important examples of this genres written in the second half of the nineteenth century. With his First Cello Sonata, Brahms overcame the hesitation he had nourished until then about the quality of his writing for duo. Seemingly, he had already written one or more pieces for cello and piano, but, unfortunately, his implacable self-censorship forbade him from letting it, or them, survive.
His first Cello Sonata, op. 38, mirrors many of the traits we have attempted to highlight until now. Its roots dig deeply into the past of music, particularly as concerns Bach and Beethoven. At the same time, it is a “revolutionary” work, whereby, interestingly, revolution comes through deference to the past. Brahms probably decided to accept the challenge of duo writing in the form of a Cello Sonata due to his mastery of the performance of both instruments involved. While he was a great concert pianist throughout his life, his experience as a cellist was more limited and confined to his youthful years; however, he was so accomplished that he could play a Concerto by Romberg, whose technical level is by no means attainable by mere amateurs. (Incidentally, while proposing his First Cello Sonata to numerous publishers, who did not welcome it with open arms, Brahms barefacedly maintained that its cello part is “easy”. Which is far from the case, but the end of publication may have justified the means…). Brahms’ mastery, however, is not observed just at the level of the individual instruments’ scoring, but first and foremost as concerns their balance and their relationships. Brahms titled this work as a Sonata for piano and cello; this old-fashioned label is certainly inappropriate in this case, but it attracts the reader’s attention on the equality of the two chamber music partners. Notwithstanding the huge timbral difference between the two instruments, Brahms manages to blend them fascinatingly and to build an ensemble sound which is unforgettable. This is observed already in the Sonata’s very first measures. Here the cello opens the Sonata with its beautiful and heart-rending theme, which is derived from a Bachian model and which sounds intense and touching in the instrument’s low register. This move is bold, as the piano could suffocate the cello’s theme. Unless, that is, the piano were to occupy the high register. Thus we have a musical paradox: the theme resounds from the depths of sound, uttered by the cello, while the piano, almost suspended in the absence of a true bass, fills the harmony in a fashion not dissimilar from what happens in Bach’s Aus Liebe from the St. Matthew Passion.
The presence of Bach is not casual: this Sonata was dedicated by Brahms to Josef Gänsbacher, who had a training as a poly-instrumentalist and singer but had spent several years working in the field of law before devoting himself entirely to music and becoming a very appreciated teacher of singing. Though Gänsbacher might have been not the most accomplished of cellists, still his experience as a singer might have been one of the reasons why Brahms dedicated his first Sonata to him. Indeed, he was indebted with Gänsbacher for the support his friend had given him when Brahms was attempting to obtain a place at the Wiener Singverein.
The piece was written at first as a three-movement Sonata, but it included a slow movement which was later expunged, and it did not yet have the spectacular Finale it currently displays. The Sonata was written, in its earliest form, in 1862, while the last movement came about three years later, in 1865, when the slow movement was excised. According to some scholars, that slow movement may have become the slow movement of the other Sonata, but this is a still unsettled matter. Brahms wished to read through the piece, and we have testimonies from his friend Clara Schumann that he sought a suitable partner for the task. Only in 1866 was the piece premiered semi-publicly, in Zurich, by Ferdinand Thieriot and Theodor Billroth, who defined it as “a little gem, both in is inventiveness and in its firm yet delicately detailed structure”. This structural aspect is certainly supported by the solid references to the musical past, and especially to Bach, whose Counterpoint XIII from the Art of Fugue almost certainly inspired both the subject and its treatment in the last movement of this Sonata.
If one were to listen blindly to the two Sonatas, one might be excused for thinking that op. 99 predates the other, revealing a fuller palette of emotions and a very youthful combination of passionateness and lightness. Still, this work was finished almost two decades after its older sibling, and belongs in that golden year which gave us some of Brahms’ finest chamber music.
In this case, the dedicatee and performer of the cello part at the premiere was certainly no amateur: Robert Hausmann was the cellist of the legendary Joachim Quartet, and would perform with Joachim the solo parts of Brahms’ superb Double Concerto. In this case, the four-movement Sonata reveals something of what had happened to Brahms in the twenty years after the First Sonatas (of which Hausmann had been a loyal champion and supporter), in particular the newly-found confidence in the handling of orchestral colours and symphonic writing (in terms of both timbre, scale of the work, and variety of the palette). Whilst the first Sonata is more concentrated and intimate, personal and crepuscular, the second is more open, more explicit, broader and more self-confident.
This is achieved at the price of daring explorations of the two instruments’ combination in terms of dynamics and power, and it requires careful handling by the performers. However, when Brahms’ score is faithfully interpreted and re-proposed, the two instruments blend magnificently, and the cello seems to find its ideal expressive venue, while the piano sppears to lose all characterizations as a “percussion” instrument and to become, in turn, a bowed instrument called to the broadest possible singing and cantabile.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
MATILDA COLLIARD: Born in 1987 into a musicians family, Matilda began studying cello at the age of 4. She graduated under the guidance of Maestro Alberto Drufuca at Novara Conservatory with highest honors. She followed master classes with Enrico Bronzi, Giovanni Gnocchi, Marianne Chen, Rafael Rosenfeld and Macha Yanouchevsky. Winner of many chamber music competitions, she specialized in the repertoire for cello and piano with Maestro Pier Narciso Masi at the International Piano Academy of Imola and later at the Academy of Music in Fusignano. She did a specialization in baroque cello with M. Gaetano Nasillo. From 2013 she started a new collaboration as duo cello and piano with Stefano Ligoratti. She founded, together with Stefano Ligoratti and Eugenio Francesco Chiaravalloti, the Musical Association "Colpi d'arte" in Milan with the aim is to promote music and culture. In 2016 she founded Trio Carducci. They have videorecorded the Trio élégiaque n.1 by Rachmaninov and they are completing the recording of Seasons by Tchaikovsky (transcription for piano trio by Goedike). In February 2017, with Trio Carducci has won 2nd prize at Grand Prize Virtuoso Competition and they have debut at Royal Albert Hall - Elgar Room in London. In 2018 they had a concert at the prestigious Saint Martin in the fields in London. In june they did a China tour. In december 2018, with Trio Carducci, she released a cd dedicated to A. Arensky for Brilliant Classics. In 2019 she founded Trio Zandonai with Lorenzo Tranquillini (Violin) and Francesco Maria Moncher (Piano). From september 2017 she's cello Teacher of Rudolf Steiner School in Milan.
Stefano Ligoratti: Stefano Ligoratti (Milan 1986) studied at the “G. Verdi” Conservatory of Milan. His Academic course was characterized by a certain musical versatility that led him to obtain many degrees. He graduated in Piano, Organ, Harpsichord, Orchestral Conducting and Composition. He won several prizes in national and international competitions, including the prestigious European Piano Competition "Mario Fiorentini" of La Spezia (Italy, January 2010), where he won the first prize, the audience award and the prize for the youngest pianist. He is Artistic Director of the music network "ClassicaViva", and he performs with the homonymous orchestra, which he founded in 2005, often in the dual role of pianist and Conductor. Recently he is involved in musical dissemination, strongly believing that the historical period in which we live needs a wide operation of musical literacy. In this regard, in January 2019, together with the pianist and musicologist Luca Ciammarughi, he began a season of eight Concert Lessons (still in progress) at the Palazzina Liberty in Milan, under the name of "Non capisco! ... Son profano!”, Offering the public an historical and analytical verbal explanation of the various musical forms. As a pianist he recorded CD’s for the labels: "ClassicaViva" ("Variations ... and beyond", published in 2007; "Fantasies", published in 2009; in duo with the russian violinist Yulia Berinskaya: "Violin in Blue" published in 2010 and "Violin in White" published in 2012); "Limen" ("Sturm und Drang" published in 2018); “Da Vinci” (“F. Schubert: Works for Piano 4 hands” in duo with Luca Ciammarughi published in 2017), (“The voice of Violin” in the role of Conductor of “I musici di Parma Orchestra” and Yulia Berinskaya as a Violin Soloist), (Beethoven: Complete Works for Cello and Piano” Published in 2019 in duo with Matilda Colliard as Cellist). Also He is finalizing the recording of complete works for Cello and Piano by G. Goltermann (for “Brilliant Classics” label) with the cellist Cosimo Carovani.
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.