Saturday, 21 January 2012

Album-leaves are Falling

BBC Radio 3's Music Matters, with some (metaphorical) fanfare, today broadcast a newly-discovered piano piece in A minor by Johannes Brahms. It's quite something to find a lost piece by a composer who so assiduously covered his own tracks (mostly by destroying everything that didn't meet his exacting standards). The conductor Christopher Hogwood told us how he discovered it completely by chance and the great pianist András Schiff performed its broadcast premiere for us. It's a wholly characteristic, mature-sounding piece, despite being an early work (1853), with rich textures, some unexpected harmonies and a beautiful melody. Mr. Hogwood called it Albumblatt (Album-leaf).

If you go to 2.51 on this link, you'll hear this very tune played by a horn. It's the start of the trio section from the scherzo of Brahms's great Horn Trio. The programme made it clear that this complete-sounding little piano piece is an early version of that trio section. Comparative listening (which I advise) reveals that the older Brahms didn't change very much of it, either melodically or harmonically, when he came to re-score and re-use it. The twofold presentation of the melody is very similar in both versions (except in the scoring!). The following sequences diverge but follow the same overall shape, with the trio version rising more smoothly and, if I may say so, less interestingly than the Albumblatt version but falling away more interestingly, through the use of syncopation. Immediately afterwards, the two pieces are pretty much (metaphorically) singing from the same hymn-sheet again - though the final cadences are somewhat different. So what we have is a little piece that Brahms later incorporated, almost wholesale, into the second movement of his Horn Trio

There is, surprisingly, the intriguing whiff of controversy over this 'new' piece. Norman Lebrecht links to the story here. Clicking on Mr. Lebrecht's own link takes you to The Music Antiquarian Blog, which in turn links to a sales catalogue from April 2011, where the manuscript of the newly-discovered piece is shown and the work described, which is very rum! It gets rummer. At The Music Antiquarian Blog, a wholly different tale is told of the re-discovery of this little piano piece. It's a fascinating read. What's going on? Are some people embroidering the truth?

YouTube posted a performance of the piece a couple of days ago by Andrew Sun, two days earlier than the BBC's premiere broadcast. As our American friends say, 'Go figure!' I'd only add, 'Go listen!'

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