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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Johannes Brahms (1833–97) often found himself at his most productive during his summer vacations, which, during the maturity of his career, he invariably spent at some bucolic location distant from his Vienna home. The three summer months of 1886 he spent at Hofstetten, near Lake Thun in Switzerland, and in that short span he produced a remarkable freshet of masterworks: his F major Cello Sonata (Opus 99), his Second Violin Sonata (in A major, Opus 100), his C minor Piano Trio (Opus 101), most of his Third Violin Sonata (in D minor, Opus 108), and several songs, including the evergreen “Wie Melodien zieht es mir” and “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer.” This is an extraordinary lineup by any measure, not just for its consistently superb quality but also for the density of achievement in so little time and the variety of emotional terrain these pieces cover.

The C minor Piano Trio is a tightly coiled composition, tense, nervous, and compact. It springs into action with a furious outburst, rather in the mode of a Beethovenian eruption, and Brahms then provides contrast through a second theme, played in octaves by the violin and cello, that encapsulates aristocratic poise. These materials are worked out with extreme economy and in a way that seems unusually abstracted, to the extent that the rhythmic pulse sometimes is obscured into apparent irrelevance in the face of contrapuntal push-and-pull. “Smaller men,” wrote Brahms’s friend Heinrich von Herzogenberg, “will hardly trust themselves to proceed so laconically without forfeiting some of what they have to say.” Indeed, Brahms says what he needs to with exceptional concentration here, even to the extent of pointedly deleting the traditional repetition of the exposition section.

The second movement is so reticent as to seem almost to apologize for its existence, the more so in light of the granitic toughness of the first movement. Here we have a mere will-o’-wisp of a scherzo, and if we sometimes glimpse it only indistinctly—its evanescence underscored by the muting of the strings—at least we are back on terra firma so far as the rhythm is concerned, since Brahms casts this in a more reliably discern- able duple meter.

With the third movement we turn to an ultra-familiar Brahmsian landscape: an intermezzo, characteristically marked Andante grazioso. But where most Brahms intermezzos are calm and consoling, perhaps dreamy, this one may leave listeners feeling uneasy in a way that may seem hard to pin down. It’s the rhythm that is unstable. Brahms sets his music in groupings of three measures—specifically, a measure in triple time followed by two measures in double time, with that pattern then repeated over and over. It’s all quite teasingly ambivalent. The Brahms biographer Jan Swafford wondered if this rhythmic bravery might reflect Brahms’s appreciation of Hungarian traditional music, with its complex rhythmic juxtapositions, and the musicologist Michael Musgrave avers that this movement testifies to Brahms’s “love of the irregular meters of Serbian folk song.” By now we will understand that this piano trio is to a large extent “about” rhythmic variety, and the finale carries that idea through to the end through an abundance of hemiolas (i.e. brief passages of duple against triple meter), falsely placed accents, and cross-rhythms.—JAMES M. KELLER