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Brahms  (1833-1897) - Concerto for Violin and Cello, op. 102

In early concertos everything was pretty casual. Composers cheerfully mixed and matched soloists, and (usually) band members “stepped up”, did their bits, and “stepped down” again. But, as the classical “solo concerto” evolved alongside stricter formality, so did the soloist's “virtuoso” status. The Nineteenth Century saw a corresponding expectation that, in “multiple-concertos”, soloists had equal “top billing”. Formally, this meant that each should play the whole exposition, et cetera, otherwise (you see?) it wouldn't be a proper “Concerto for X and Y”. Beethoven, in his Triple Concerto, wrestled mightily with the consequent problems of sheer length (and, possibly, sheer boredom). Completely barmy, if you ask me - a Piano Trio doesn't suffer this ridiculous stricture, so neither should a Concerto for Piano Trio. Composers generally seemed to avoid the problem by avoiding the form altogether, which is a shame. 

Remove the piano, and you have Brahms' choice for his Double Concerto. Written in 1887, it actually did duty as an olive branch for Joachim, who fell out with Brahms over the latter's unwise attempt to reconcile Joachim with his estranged wife. It worked: Joachim and the 'cellist Robert Hausmann gave the premiere in Cologne that autumn, with Brahms conducting. 

Brahms, typically, was never satisfied with his work. Being anyway less comfortable writing for strings than his own instrument (piano), he sought Joachim's advice as he had over the Violin Concerto. Joachim's suggested revisions were never taken literally, Brahms preferring to use them as technical guidelines for his own revisions. 

Received wisdom regards the 'cello as an awkward solo instrument because its mellow, intimate voice is easily swamped by even quite modest orchestration. The violin's more penetrating tone compounds the problem. Fair enough, but it's an inherently attractive combination, and the problem is not the audience's. It's a challenge which any self-respecting musician ought to seize rather than shun. Brahms, bold chap, tackled both “problems” head-on. He simply sidestepped that tiresome “equal billing” nonsense, and solved the balance problems, by treating the violin and 'cello as a single “complex instrument”. His strategy created opportunities for each to shine individually, and exploited the violin's softer registers to enable harmonious interplay. Anticipating modern “positive discrimination”, he often gave the weaker instrument the lead,  setting an example for a sympathetic stronger instrument. Thinking about it, isn't that what “equal billing” is really about? 

1. Allegro. An unusually ingenious introduction encourages assertiveness in the weaker solo instrument and considerate restraint in the stronger: the orchestra summarises the first subject, its rugged 3-note phrases immediately taken up by the 'cello. Similarly, woodwind alone presage the tender second subject, its 2-note phrases elaborated by the violin. The solists entangle enthusiastically, then concede to the orchestra for the full first subject. The second subject is linked through a significant staccato/stretto figure (which reappears, led by the violin, to signal both development and coda). The soloists take up the exposition, the 'cello leading off both subjects, now linked by delicious woodwind musings. Soloists in unison start the development, and the orchestra the recapitulation, although from then on Brahms stirs things up a little. 

2. Andante. For a relatively “intellectual” composer, Brahms seemed fond of lullabies. Regardless of its curious angularity, this ternary movement fits the bill a treat. The soloists (in unison again) take up the theme offered by the wind, whose continued contribution leads them to discover a chorale-like counter-subject which propels the violin into spinning arabesques, echoed by the 'cello. The full return of the main subject is enhanced by a subtly enriched accompaniment, gently coaxing the soloists to greater lyricism, and thence to a balmy sunset. 

3. Vivace non troppo - poco meno allegro - tempo primo. In this sonata-rondo (ABACABA) finale Brahms, through his “not too” and “a bit less”, warns against overloading the sprightly bonhomie. The jaunty main theme, offered by the 'cello and accepted by the violin, is playfully tossed around. Unable to resist such fun, the orchestra rollicks into the fray. A relatively stolid second (counter) subject is packaged very similarly. As the violin climbs skyward, the 'cello below brings back the first subject. A short pause marks the start of the development [C]. Such a good time is had by all that “development” never quite ceases, right through the [AB] recapitulation to the [A] coda, but, let's face it, by then who's counting? I for one have surrendered to the unalloyed pleasure of this friendly frolic. In fact, that sums it up: the accent all through is very much on “playing together”, in both senses.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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