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Brahms: Sonatas for Cello and Piano
Brahms was in his thirty-third year in 1865 when he completed the first of these sonatas, and the second followed more than twenty years later. Both show a quite exceptional understanding of the cello and a deep natural sympathy with its musical character, which ranges from gruff surliness to a manly ardour and an almost feminine lyrical tenderness. Brahms' writing for the piano, which includes much use of the lower registers, cross-rhythms and thick textures, presented him with problems in balancing the two instruments, but for the most part he was triumphantly successful.
The E minor sonata is predominantly elegiac in character in the first two movements. The "espressivo" opening theme of the Allegro non troppo heard in the cello is countered by the B major melody of the codetta in Brahms' ballad style. The development section, which passes through various remote keys, includes an heroic contest between the two instruments in which the cello has recourse to fortissimo arpeggiated chords whose percussive attack maintains the balance with the stronger-voiced piano. The Allegretto quasi menuetto has a slightly archaic dance character, but the trio section (F sharp minor) consists of a long-flowing, typically romantic melody sung in octaves by the two instruments and ornamented by the piano.
In the final Allegro (E minor) the mood changes to one of open combat between the two instruments: it is fugal in character, with heavy cross accents and insistent rhythmic and harmonic clashes. But variety is provided by a light-hearted cantabile melody in the major. The tempestuous coda forms a magnificent climax.
I n the F major sonata, which has four movements, Brahms explores even more thoroughly the characters of the two instruments and their potential for a fruitful alliance. From the very start the mood of the Allegro vivace is expansive, even exultant. Throughout this movement both instruments are given tremolando accompaniments, instead of the broken chords which the composer mostly employs for the piano, so giving a tingling sense of excitement to the declamatory opening theme. This device recurs in a different context in the development section, where the cello's tremolandos act as a background to a long sequence of pianissimo piano chords. In the Adagio affettuoso (F sharp major) the long, lyrical melody is shared by the two instruments, the rich harmonic texture being set off by the cello's alternation of pizzicato and bowed legato and the composer's exploitation of its three natural registers. The scherzo movement is an Allegro passionato in F minor with a line that repeatedly plunges and rises, mostly quiet but with strong accents standing out sharply and punctuating the restless motion of the music. The trio section, in contrast, consists of a broad melody, dolce espressivo, in which the cello plays the leading role. The theme which opens and dominates the final Allegro molto (F major) has a narrative character, the root-idea undergoing modifications as the theme develops. The contrasting section is lyrical, in B fiat minor, but it lasts only twenty-eight bars and the main subject then reappears.