Day 327: String Sextets

BrahmsCD21Johannes sure does love his pizzicato, the word for the plucking of stringed instruments (which, to me, always sounds like a character in a cartoon sneaking up on another character – you know, that tip-toe sound).

Because he uses it a lot.

So much so that its effect on me has diminished.

I used to love hearing it in a Classical composition, smiling whenever my ears would pick it out of a movement.

Now, I just think, “Must be Brahms.” Yawn.

Here’s what I’m listening to today:

String Sextet no. 1 in B flat Op. 18

Movement I (“Allegro ma non troppo”) runs the gamut from pastoral to pretentious, from melodic to mash-up. The instruments ebb and flow, sometimes building to a sound that resembles a “mash-up” video on YouTube in which someone has combined two songs into one. The ending of Movement I is all stringed instruments being plucked.

Why? I don’t know. Pizzicato is supposed to be like a caviar garnish – not a main course.

According to its entry on Wikipedia:

The String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18, was composed in 1860 by Johannes Brahms. It was published in 1862 by the firm of Fritz Simrock.

The sextet is scored for two violins, two violas, and two cellos.

There are earlier examples by Luigi Boccherini (two sets of six each). However, between the Boccherini and the Brahms, very few for stringed instruments without piano seem to have been written or published, whereas within the decades following Brahms’ two examples, a number of composers, including Antonín Dvořák, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Joachim Raff, Max Reger, Arnold Schoenberg, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, all wrote string sextets.

This sextet was used as soundtrack by French director Louis Malle in the movie “The Lovers” (“Les Amants”, 1958).

The sextet’s second movement is featured in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Sarek”. The second movement is featured in “The Day of the Dead”, an episode of Inspector Morse.

Movement II (“Andante, ma moderato”) is actually very, very interesting. In fact, Continue reading

Day 324: Piano Quartet No. 2

BrahmsCD18I do so love the sound of Classical piano and stringed instruments playing together.

Today’s CD – Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Op. 26 – does an adequate job of filling my ears with what I love most about Classical music.


This composition is oddly incongruous with itself. The piano sounds like it was recorded in another era while the stringed instruments sound modern.

Or, to put it another way, this recording (or maybe it’s the composition itself) sounds like the piano is playing either in a different room, or a different time (even a different piece of music!) and the stringed instruments are laid over the piano track.

I know that’s not the case. Brilliant Classics is my favorite music label. Everything they do is first-rate, top-notch, and with the highest regard for quality in mind. So the problem is not the recording. The problem is the composition itself.

The worst offender of this is Movement I (“Allegro non troppo”) which starts out with piano and strings relatively together. But then, very shortly, the piano starts to meander off by itself and the strings play their parts almost incongruously. Almost like Jazz music. The different instruments peal off on their own for awhile, then return to play the main melody.

But it sounds odd in this composition because the piano is not as prominent as the strings. The volume level. They don’t mesh well. The piano is quiet and relegated to the background. The strings are right up front.

According to its entry on Wikipedia:

Piano Quartet in A major, Op. 26, by Johannes Brahms is scored for piano, violin, viola and cello. It was completed in 1861 and received its premiere in November 1863 by the Hellmesberger Quartet with the composer playing the piano part. It has been especially noted for drawing influence from composer Franz Schubert. Lasting approximately 50 minutes, this quartet is the longest of Brahms’s chamber works to perform.

Not even the pizzicato can save this piece for me.

Speaking of pizzicato, Brahms seems to use it a lot. Yet, it doesn’t have the same effect on me that it does in the music of other composers.

Anyway, Brahms was 28 when he composed this piece for piano and strings.

Today’s music was performed by:

Derek Han piano
Isabell Faust violin (Stradivari, 1704)
Bruno Giuranna viola
Alain Meunier cello

I really wish I could hear some Brahms that blew me away the way Beethoven’s music did. So far, though, not so much.

That’s not to say Brahms was a hack. It just says that his music doesn’t resonate with me the way Beethoven’s did.

Day 317: Cello Sonatas

BrahmsCD11I like things that are different.

Like most people who dig underground/alternative music, musicians, authors, books, or art, I like discovering stuff that’s a step or two outside the norm.

When it comes to music, I still flip out over Led Zeppelin, Rush, Queen, ELP, Yes, Bad Company, the Beatles, and Alice Cooper. But when I discover an obscure passage of music, or a quirky band – or rare instrument like the glass harmonica, which I discovered listening to Mozart’s compositions a few years back – I get all tingly.

That goes double for Classical music. Symphony after symphony after opera after opera bores me to tears. Especially if they all sound the same, which they often do.

That’s why I like piano sonatas, cello sonatas, and other compositions that open up the space between notes to let another instrument come forward, or a melody reveal itself. There’s usually an opportunity for the music to sound different, to be magical.


Beethoven, for example, knew how to put air between notes, to let his compositions breathe. There’s no equivocation with Beethoven. His works are just powerful pieces of music that kick my ass.

Brahms, however, is another story.

In the case of Brahms’ cello sonatas (Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor Op. 38 and Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Op. 99), what we have is more notes, not necessarily something fundamentally different from everything else I’ve heard from him so far.

And that’s too bad, because the cello has the ability to dig really deep, to pluck emotional chords that can bring tears welling up in one’s eyes. It’s a mournful instrument. Combined with a piano – which can also be extremely emotional – such a sonata could be powerful stuff, indeed.

Although Movement I (“Allegro non troppo”) from Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor features Continue reading

Day 309: Brahms’ Third Racket & Symphony No. 4

BrahmsCD3Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 will forever be associated (at least, in my mind) with this scene from the ’70s British TV series Fawlty Towers.

If you’re not familiar with Fawlty Towers, it’s about a snobbish, extremely rude hotel owner named Basil Fawlty (played to perfection by Monty Python alum John Cleese) who, along with his shrew wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) own and operate Fawlty Towers.

In this short-but-hilarious scene, Sybil chastises Basil for not getting to the chores she laid out for him to do (in this case, I believe it was to compose the day’s food menu). He dashes back to his typewriter to begin the task.

So, I’ve been listening to Brahms’ Third Racket this morning.

All joking aside, Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F Op. 90 is Continue reading

Day 307: Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 1

BrahmsCD1Today begins a new chapter in my three-year journey, and another exploration of the complete works of a Classical composer.

This time, I will listen to everything Johannes Brahams composed.

Once again, I turn to the wonderful label Brilliant Classics and their Johannes Brahams Complete Edition, which you can buy from Amazon.

I also turn to Wikipedia to tell me more about Johannes Brahms:

Johannes Brahms (7 May 1833 – 3 April 1897) was a German composer and pianist.

Born in Hamburg into a Lutheran family, Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria. In his lifetime, Brahms’s popularity and influence were considerable; following a comment by the nineteenth-century conductor Hans von Bülow, he is sometimes grouped with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the “Three Bs”.

Brahms composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works; he worked with some of the leading performers of his time, including the pianist Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim. Many of his works have become staples of the modern concert repertoire. Brahms, an uncompromising perfectionist, destroyed some of his works and left others unpublished.

Brahms is often considered both a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Baroque and Classical masters. He was a master of counterpoint, the complex and highly disciplined art for which Johann Sebastian Bach is famous, and of development, a compositional ethos pioneered by Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and other composers.

The musicians on Brahms CD 1 are:

Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra
Jaap van Zweden, conductor

The composition is Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 68 and it consists of four movements:

I. Un poco sostenuto – Allegro – Meno allegro
II. Andante sostenuto
III. Un poco allegretto e grazioso
IV. Adagio – Piu andante – Allegro non troppo ma con brio – Piu allegro

I had no idea what to expect with Brahms.

I’m sure I heard something he’s composed at some point in my life, quite possibly on the local Classic music radio station. But Continue reading

Day 235: String Quartets Op. 59 No. 3 “Rasumovsky” & Op. 74 “Harp”

BeethovenCD40This, the third of the “Rasumovsky” string quartets, is even better than the previous two.

Don’t ask me why.

It’s just really fine, well-crafted music played by a reknowned group of musicians, the Suske Quartett:

Karl Suske violin I
Klaus Peters violin II
Karl-Heinz Dommus viola
Matthias Pfaender cello

Here’s what’s on this CD:

String Quartet No. 9 in C Op. 59 No. 3 “Rasumovsky”

NOTE: All three of the “Rasumovsky” string quartets were written in 1806. Beethoven was 36, and well on his way to being deaf.

String Quartet No. 10 in E Flat Op. 74 “Harp”

This was published in 1809. Beethoven was 39. According to its entry on Wiki,

The nickname “Harp” refers to the characteristic pizzicato sections in the Allegro of the first movement, where pairs of members of the quartet alternate notes in an arpeggio, reminiscent of the plucking of a harp. Like many nicknames for Beethoven’s works, this was created by the publisher.

Woo-hoo! I love pizzicato!

And this is a pizzicato-lover’s dream come true. It’s brilliant. So much Continue reading

Day 229: Violin Sonatas IV

BeethovenCD34What a terrific way to start a day!

Movement I (“Adagio sostenuto – Presto”) from Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Op. 47 “Kreutzer” is a corker. Brisk, expressive, and dynamic; it’s everything a Beethoven composition should be.

The performers are the same as they’ve been for the past few Violin Sonata CDs:

Kristof Barati violin
Klara Wurtz piano

But there’s something especially magical about this sonata, a fun melody that alternates between the violin and the piano as it expresses itself. It has that ask-and-answer quality that I like where one instrument will play a short passage and then the other will repeat it, back and forth.

This movement almost has a kind of Hungarian feel to it.

And pizzicato! Yes, pizzicato, my old friend. Toward the end of Movement I, as things are really syncopated and dynamic, the violin plays a bit of pizzicato as the counterpoint to the piano’s dynamics. It’s particularly arresting. It happens around the 10:45 mark in the piece.

I have to say, this movement, from this Piano Sonata, could very well be one of my favorite pieces from Beethoven. This is tremendously compelling music.

The above YouTube clip is not from this morning’s listening. Featured on that clip are violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. The recording on the YouTube clip is from 1973. It’s a fine recording, and they are fine musicians. But, truth be told, I prefer the dynamics of Kristof and Klara for this piece.

By the way, in the YouTube clip, my favorite part comes around the 9:25 mark.

It’s time to let my fingers do the walking into Google Land for a moment. I need to find out more about Piano Sonata No. 9 in A Op. 47 “Kreutzer.”

Ahh, and so I discover what Continue reading

Day 228: Violin Sonatas III

BeethovenCD33I love watching the sun come up.

Here I sit at Panera Bread. It’s about quarter past six in the morning. The sun is painting the skies. But it’s another cloudy day. So the beautiful colors will fade to gray soon.

But it’s sunny somewhere, even if we can’t see it from where we sit. So how can we be sad?

Plus, is it really possible to feel out of sorts or depressed when there’s Beethoven’s violin’s sonatas for the listening?

And not just any violin sonatas. These are expertly performed by two of the world’s finest musicians:

Kristof Barati violin
Klara Wurtz piano

These two gifted musicians perform three compositions on this CD:

Violin Sonata No. 6 in A Op. 30 No. 1 (composed 1801-1802; Beethoven was 31-32)

Violin Sonata No. 7 in C Minor Op. 30 No. 2 (composed 1801-1802; Beethoven was 31-32)

Movement II (“Adagio cantabile”) features one of my favorite sounds: pizzicato. It’s near the end of the movement. As soon as I heard it, I smiled. For some reason, I love pizzicato in a piece of music. It’s such a fun sound.

Violin Sonata No. 8 in G Op. 30 No. 3 (composed 1801-1802; Beethoven was 31-32)

According to its entry on Wikipedia,

This sonata is characteristic of early/middle Beethoven in its solid sonata structure, just beginning to get adventurous in syncopation, with some extraordinary off beat sforzandi.


Day 222: Piano Trios IV

BeethovenCD27On one hand, this CD is more of the same: Piano Trios performed by Trio Elegiaque (Laurent Le Flecher, violin, Virginie Constant, cello, and Francois Dumont, piano).

Yet, it’s different.

Piano Trio in B Flat Op. 97 “Archduke” is melodic, enchanting, and very pretty. For one thing, I’m a sucker for pizzicato, the plucking of strings. It’s a sound both compelling and lighthearted, sort of like when a character in a Disney cartoon movie sneaks up on another character. It’s that tip-toe sound the instruments make. So everyone leans in.

Halfway through Movement I (“Allegro moderato”) there’s a break in which pizzicato strings and a trilling piano hold sway. There’s even a part where the pizzicato strings and the piano play a run together.

Then, it all kind of breaks down into what sounds like improvisational jazz or experimental music. But then the cello returns the melody and the strings and piano return to form.

It’s very clever.

Totally what I’ve come to know as classic Beethoven.

What a style.

All of the compositions on today’s CD are interesting, imminently listenable.

Piano Trio in B Flat Wo039

Piano Trio in E Flat Op. 63 after the String Quarter Op. 4

Day 106: A Few Delightful Surprises

HaydnCD106Another FAVORITE!

I was hooked from the first few notes of Movement I (“Andante”) of Piano Trio in C Minor.

There’s a melody here!

Haydn wrote a discernible melody!

This isn’t just a well-crafted landscape of music. It’s compelling – nearly hummable – to boot.

And that’s not even taking into account the lovely piano work, which is especially extraordinary in this piece (the piano really cuts loose about 3/4 into it). And the violin passages (it switches from the piano carrying the melody to the violin carrying the melody at about the 1:00 mark).

I could listen to Piano Trio in C Minor HOB XV:13 all day long.

Piano Trio in A Flat HOB XV:14 is no slouch, though. Terrific piano work in Movement I (“Allegro moderato”). Movement II (“Adagio”) is much slower, but no less compelling, especially when the piano is tinkling away and the violin is doing its pizzicato best to arrest my attention. Movement III (“Rondo Vivace”) brings this Trio to a close in grand style.

Piano Trio in F HOB XV:2 is also quite exquisite from Movement I (“Allegro moderato”) to Movement III (“Finale: Adagio with four variations”). Movement III contains really interesting instrumentation. It’s very hard to describe (because, remember, I’m not a musicologist). But from about the 3:54 mark until the 4:25 mark it’s almost comical. The instruments would play Dee-Do-Dee-Do-Do and then there’d be a Dee! Dee! Dee!, then back to Dee-Do-Dee-Do-Do and then another rapid-fire Dee! Dee! Dee! I’d say listen for yourself, except I couldn’t find that particular clip on YouTube.

The entire CD is worth listening to again and again.

Providing the music for these wonderful Piano Trios is the Van Swieten Trio, which consists of:

Bart van Oort fortepiano
Remy Baudet violin
Jaap ter Linden cello

Here’s a list of Haydn’s piano trios. The are referred to by their Hoboken catalog names, and their date of composition is not always certain. So I’ll Continue reading