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Brahms String Sextets in piano trio versions

No 1 in Op 18, No 2 in Op.36; Hungarian dances Bk 1 Nos 5, 6

Trio Viennarte

Camerata Cm28115

In Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, much of the plot interest is provided by the protagonist’s discovery of a hitherto unknown Beethoven String Quintet, the composer’s transcription of the Piano Trio Op 1 No 3. This work does indeed exist and is indeed little-known, though not completely unknown. It works extremely well in string form, as does Beethoven’s better-known transcription of the Piano Sonata Op 14 No 1 as a string quartet. This CD is the opposite, the two Brahms string sextets, in piano trio versions.

The notes to this disc are unnecessarily defensive about the validity of these transcriptions. They were made by Brahms’ friend Theodore Kirchner, and we are told Brahms was ‘as happy as a snow-king’ when he heard them. One can, indeed, imagine many moments when the composer would have smiled to see how his friend had solved the problems arising from the very different texture.

In any case, everyone knows that Brahms was a very academically correct composer, so his works sound interesting with different combinations of instrumentation – whether the four-hand versions of the symphonies (Duo Crommelenck on Claves, Goldstone/Clemmow on Divine Art) and of the Requiem (Accentus on Naïve) or the various versions of the Piano Quintet for strings alone and two pianos.

In general, the Sextets as Piano trios are very successful. Occasionally, as in the slow movement of Op 36, one misses the nuances of the rich all-string textures, but generally, as a the opening of Op 18, the division between piano and strings is interesting and intelligent. Perhaps the two minuet / scherzo movements come off best, especially that of Op 18, where the performers produce an extremely winning effect, half music box, half perpetuum mobile.

Ironically, the movement that is most questionable in this version does exist as a piano solo – the slow movement variations of Op 18. Here, the division of melodic lines to strings and chordal writing to piano is a little too predictable, precisely the musical problem Brahms solved so inventively in the final version of the Piano Quintet.  

It is hard, however, to be as enthusiastic about the performances. The players are very competent, but there is a lack of fire and commitment throughout. Listen to the finale of Op 18, which meanders along to an uninspiring conclusion or the first movement of Op 36. The filler of two Hungarian Dances in café arrangements is pleasant but no more. Nevertheless, recommended, as the music is compelling on its own.

Ying Chang