Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8 is a piece that bookended the compositional career of Johannes Brahms. In 1854, it became the 21-year-old composer’s first published chamber music composition. As Brahms prepared for retirement over thirty years later in 1890, he returned to this early work for minor revisions. He said, “I didn’t provide it with a new wig, just combed and arranged its hair a little.” The revised version (featured below) is most often performed, although the original has not been forgotten. (You can hear the original version performed by Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis, and Marc-Andre Hamelin in this clip from the 2014 Verbier Festival).
There’s something extraordinary about the way the beginning of this piece draws us in, immediately and fully. The expansive opening melody, passed between the piano, cello, and violin in a passionate musical conversation, evokes a complex blend of emotions: warmth and beauty, but also a subtle hint of sadness, longing, and lament. This sense of melancholy seems to be just below the surface in much of Brahms’ music. You get a similar feeling in the second movement’s trio section, which is first heard as a haunting whisper in this preceding passage. The third movement moves into strange, mysterious territory. It seems to suspend time in a way similar to Beethoven’s Late String Quartets. Interestingly, Brahms’ First Trio was premiered in New York City in 1855. Does this passage in the final movement remind you of The Star Spangled Banner?
Violinist Christian Tetzlaff, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff, and pianist Lars Vogt released a recording of Brahms two Piano Trios last June. (Listen to Trio No. 2 here). Here is their live concert performance of the First Trio:
(Warning: The sound and video in this clip are distractingly out of sync, so you might want to listen without watching.)