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Poetic Inspiration for Absolute Music


Engraved device from a Engraved device from letter of Brahms (courtesy Harvard Musical Association)
Engraved device from letter of Brahms (courtesy Harvard Musical Association)

Primary Source Concerts associates the works it performs with manuscripts, first editions, and other memorabilia displayed at its events. These are furnished by Schubertiade, an antiquarian music seller owned by Primary Source violinist Gabriel Boyers. On their March 28th all-Brahms concert at the Goethe-Institut Boston, the directly related materials were the texts of poems Brahms copied out in letters to Clara Schumann, which formed the subtexts for movements from the Piano sonatas no. 2 in F-sharp minor, op. 2, and no. 3 in F minor, op. 5 (designated Andante con espressione and Andante espressivo respectively). Other materials, all of which were available for audience scrutiny, included the first edition of Brahms’s Violin Sonata no. 1 in G major, op. 78, and a variety of photos and correspondence relating to Brahms, Clara Schumann, and others associated with these works. One item that caught our eye was a letter from Brahms’s friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim (who premiered and to whom the composer dedicated the sonata), accepting an engagement to perform (we know not what) in England. Written in English and not indicating the year in which it was written, it very particularly set out Joachim’s “terms,” which included a fee of 20 guineas (£21), which, if the letter had been written in, say, 1890, would come to £2300 (about $3500) today, based on the inflation calculator here. Not too shabby for a single recital, but probably a bit of a bargain for a world class soloist.

The relevance of the two poems, Kraft von Toggenburg’s medieval Minnelied “Mir ist leide” and C. O. Sturnau’s (pen name of Otto Inkermann) passionate and, for its time, pretty racy “Junge liebe,” to the sonatas, as Boyers explained at the beginning of the concert, is their direct literary reference in Brahms’s “abstract” music. This was very rare, and, as his letters to Clara and his manuscripts make clear, the two movements in question were intended as settings—in some respects literal, as the rhythms of the music set at least the beginnings of the texts—and figurative, as the movements adopt the overall moods of the texts. So too with the violin sonata, in whose finale Brahms incorporated the principal theme of his song “Regenlied,” op. 59 no. 3, setting Klaus Groth’s poem of that name (whose text was given in the Primary Source program).

With that introduction in mind, pianist Tanya Blaich performed the two sonata movements, having read the appurtenant poem before each. The op. 2 movement is a set of variations on a wintry, disconsolate tune (the poem tells of the poet’s despair that the high-born lady he fancies has forsaken him without explanation). Blaich’s rendering, a bit heavy, was faithful to that aspect of the poem, but gave shorter shrift to the tenderer moments in which some of the variations reflected the more wistful elements of the text. With the op. 5 movement, she sensibly shifted gears to pick up the ardent tone of the poem. The music Brahms used here is interestingly not so much Lisztian, as Boyers suggested in his prefatory remarks, but overtly Schumannesque, coming close to an outright quotation from a piano piece whose name for the nonce eludes us. At any rate, we noted with pleasure Blaich’s relatively light pedaling and lovely cantabile, progressing to a heady and even erotic climax.

Boyers and Blaich closed the first half with the violin sonata, which stands out as one of Brahms’s greatest chamber works. Boyers cultivated a very rich, full and warm sound, just right for the aching beauty of the opening movement and even more so for the slow movement that follows. The finale, with the “Rainsong” subtext, opened with charming delicacy by both players, with Blaich effective in the rain motif. Apart from the reference to the song from which its opening melody flows, this movement puts into focus the larger architecture of the entire sonata, both by recalling the theme from the slow movement as an integral element, but in the dotted-note rhythm on a single note that unites the first and third movement themes, and thus stands in for an explicit quotation. Our disappointments with this performance relate to how little this architecture emerged from the playing, and how some otherwise notable details, such as a critical chord change near the end, which many careful performances prepare through phrasing and dynamics, just slid by.

The sole occupant of the program’s second half was the magisterial Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34. Boyers acknowledged that this work has no literary or programmatic association, and can thus stand for Brahms as the supreme late 19th century master of “absolute music.” The irony is that this work is so dramatic in its materials and so directed in its progress, that it generates more vivid mental imagery and direct emotional response than any pre-assigned program ever could. In this performance Boyers and Blaich were joined by Gabriela Diaz taking the first violin part, violist Jesse Holstein, and cellist Jacques Lee Wood. We don’t know who figured out that the Goethe-Institut has risers that the players (other than the piano, of course) could use, but in all the concerts we’ve seen at this venue this was the first time we saw them in use; the effect, both on the audience’s sight lines and the projection of the strings, was noticeable and welcome.

In the performance, Diaz brought a brilliant sweetness and clarity in her playing that contrasted with Boyers’s mellowness in the sonata. Blaich was admirably restrained in her ensemble playing, avoiding the pitfall of turning this work, with its many bravura turns for the piano, into a chamber concerto. The performances, all of which were individually excellent ones from players who operate at a high level, did not gel as an ensemble until the third and fourth movements. It’s not for nothing that pieces like this are usually performed by established string quartets. That they did get it together by the finale, in particular, showed in the tight integration of the contrapuntal lines and excellent tension and propulsion in softer passages. One quirk, though, that we haven’t heard before, was the players’ stressing the grace notes in the finale’s second subject, as if this were an 18th century piece. It was a bit of a distraction, but it didn’t impede the quintet’s high-energy finish.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. So Mr. Koven, was the concept a stunt, or did it add to your enjoyment?

    Comment by de novo2 — April 1, 2013 at 5:37 pm

  2. I don’t think it was a stunt–that’s a characterization that presumes some intent to deceive. I accept the presentation as having been done in good faith. It was certainly interesting to see some of these documents, especially the letters and such, but I don’t know that it added anything to my appreciation that the commentary wouldn’t have done by itself. I suppose what it did was buttress the information provided by Boyers’s commentary, which is a valid justification in itself.

    One thing I didn’t mention in the review is that with all this talk about original manuscripts and so forth, the performers used standard printed editions. I’ve seen the Borromeo Quartet play Schubert from original manuscripts (digitized, of course) on the laptops that they use instead of paper music, and even project the images for the audience to see. That was an interesting exercise, but I’m not sure even that would make a difference (and Brahms’s handwriting wasn’t the best I’ve seen, so it would be rather difficult for players and audience to follow).

    Comment by Vance Koven — April 1, 2013 at 9:31 pm

  3. You can look at a scan of the composer’s manuscript of the Piano Quintet at or upload PDF’s at,_Op.34_(Brahms,_Johannes) (the first “scores and parts” offering is the manuscript, downloadable by movement). I have seen Nicholas Kitchen play the Bach Sonatas and Partitas while showing a composer’s manuscript, and that was invaluable, particularly seeing how Kitchen scrupulously observes every last meticulously placed marking in a way that most recordings I’ve heard don’t. As Vance says, though, I’m not sure it would have helped much in this case because of Brahms’s penmanship.

    That does make one wonder about the possibility of, say, performing Schubert’s Erlkönig or Winterreise at the Morgan Library in New York, which owns manuscript copies of both in their vaults.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — April 2, 2013 at 1:04 am

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