Brahms: Piano Trio No. 2 in C major

Program note

Shivering strings add a sense of nervous excitement to the piano’s interjections in the capricious Scherzo.


Andante con moto

Scherzo: Presto
Finale: Allegro giocoso

A noble melody from violin and cello opens Johannes Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2, the piano soon joining as the music gains force in a robust and confident first movement.

The second of Brahms’ three piano trios is the work of a mature composer assured in his craft. He began writing the first movement in 1880 – alongside work on his Second and Third Symphonies – and he finished the trio while on vacation in the Austrian town of Bad Ischl in the summer of 1882, his Second Piano Concerto having been successfully unveiled the previous winter in Budapest. The trio would premiere later that year in Frankfurt with Brahms himself at the piano.

In the opening of the slow movement, a theme followed by five variations, violin and cello work in tandem to give us a grave, minor-key melody against dark chords from the piano. Here, there is a hint of the Hungarian music that would obsess Brahms throughout his career – and result in the famous Hungarian Dances he completed the year before starting work on this trio.

If the trio’s first two movements capture something of the gravity of Brahms’ symphonies, by the third he is in a more light-hearted mood. Shivering strings add a sense of nervous excitement to the piano’s interjections in the capricious Scherzo, anxious energy giving way to soaring melodies in the movement’s central section, before the playful atmosphere of the opening returns.

Brahms carries the Scherzo’s sense of motion into the flowing finale, tripping piano and strings bringing lightness and agility to a movement that serves as a wonderful counterbalance to the seriousness of the Allegro.

Brahms was evidently pleased with the results of his work, writing to his publisher Fritz Simrock: ‘You have not yet had such a beautiful trio from me and very likely have not published its equal in the last ten years!’

© Angus McPherson, 2022

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