Brahms was a most accomplished pianist and supported his family
financially from an early age by playing the piano in dockside
in the port of Hamburg. His output for piano spanned his
entire life often making reductions of various orchestral,
choral and chamber works; many of them for four-hands. This
was a standard approach of the day that gave new and established
compositions a greater accessibility to much wider audiences.
Brahms’ four-hand arrangements ranged from small waltzes
for solo piano to his own four-hand piano reduction of the
mighty German Requiem; surely his most substantial
undertaking in this form.
The Naxos label are up to volume
16 in the series and now turn their attention to the music
of other composers whose music
significant in Brahms’ life namely: Schumann; Joachim and
Schubert. The major work here is the Schumann Piano Quartet
in E flat major which was arranged for piano duet in 1855
at the time Schumann was in an asylum at Endenich.
Composed under the inspiration of Schumann’s feelings for his young
wife Clara and under the discipline of his recent study of
the classical masters it is not surprising that the Piano
Quartet turned out as it did. It is less expansive, less
flamboyant than Schumann’s better-known Piano Quintet but
the score belongs in the same aristocratic class and displays
a special effort by this essentially epigrammatic composer
to grasp classical structure.
Brahms’ friend the eminent violinist and string
quartet leader Joseph Joachim was also a composer of some
stature. Although favourably regarded in his day Joachim’s
rather modest amount of compositions are now rarely performed
and recorded. Joachim’s Concert
Overture, Hamlet, Op. 4 dating from 1853, a score that had impressed Robert
Schumann, was arranged by Brahms between 1853 and
1854 for piano duet, out of respect for his violinist friend.
Schubert, who had died five years before Brahms had been
born, produced a library of dances and waltzes (Ländler) for piano, intended
for the soirées at his own or his friends’ houses, known
as Schubertiades. Brahms’ arrangements for piano duet include
Schubert’s sixteen Ländler. Schubert had also composed
four Ländler for piano duet and although we are not
told I assume that Brahms made these arrangements for piano
duo, using two pianos.
German-born pianists Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn have
been performing as a partnership over twenty years. They
have been consistently impressive with memorable and sparkling
performances in this excellent Naxos series. In Schumann’s
Piano Quartet they are fully
engaged in this aristocratic score. They are also able convincingly
to communicate the emotional pull and poignancy of the music,
especially in the warm and intimate passages of the andante cantabile.
Matthies and Köhn are effective advocates for Joachim’s Shakespearean
score, the Hamlet Overture.
The couple provide a beautiful range of varying elements
that captures the drama of the score. In Brahms’ delightful Ländler arrangements
I love the way the duo easily convey Schubert’s charming
and carefree spirit of the Vienna café house. Their playing
of vigorous rhythmic drive reveals the peasant origin of
the scores and the ingenuous folk-song style melodies.
This release was recorded five years ago and has been stored away
until now. The well balanced sound quality is of a good standard
and the booklet notes from Keith Anderson are generally helpful.
However, the information contained on the jewel case sleeve
is not without error; which is unusual for Naxos.
This continuing series provides much to enjoy. In this assortment
of arrangements Matthies and Köhn provide commendable performances
that give considerable pleasure.
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Seen & Heard
Editor in Chief