JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
Sonata / Piano Quintet, Opus 34
orchestration by Henk de Vlieger, 2018
The realisation of Brahms' Piano Quintet Opus 34 has a remarkable history. The piece was originally composed in 1863 for a string quintet with two celli. However, after some rehearsals and an disappointing private performance, Brahms decided to rework it as a sonata for two pianos. In april 1864 he gave the first performance of this sonata with Carl Tausig. And, as usual, he sent a copy of the piece to his close friend Clara Schumann.
On July 22, 1864, Clara Schumann wrote to him: “After the happy hours I spent with Hermann Levi (a friend of Brahms at the time, future Wagnerian orchestra conductor) over your sonata, dear Johannes, I must add something about it which is very important to me. The work has a marvelous ampleness, its skilful combinations are interesting from beginning to end, it is masterful from every point of view, but it is not a sonata; it is a work whose ideas you could - and should! - spread out, as from a horn of plenty, over an entire orchestra. A mass of beautiful thoughts get lost on the piano and are recognisable only by a musician; the audience would not be able to take advantage of them.” In the same letter she strongly recommands that he rewrites the work yet again. What did she have in mind? Did she recognise an orchestral piece or even a symphony in this sonata? She knew very well that Brahms had been working on a symphony in C minor since 1862. His close friends expected him to continue in the vein of Beethoven with his first symphony, an expectation that Brahms had trouble satisfying: “You have no idea what it is to constantly hear such a giant walking behind one!” Brahms did follow Clara's advice, but he did not orchestrate the sonata. In fact, it was Hermann Levi who suggested that Brahms should recast the work as a piano quintet. In this final version it became one of the best known and most frequently heard pieces of all Brahms' chamber music. His first symphony would be completed only twelve years later.
Encouraged by some friends and colleagues, I started in 2016 to research the possibilities of an stylistically informed orchestration of the Sonata for two Pianos. The first challenge I came across was that the main keys of the piece (F minor, C-sharp minor, A-flat major, etc.) are rarely employed in Brahms’ orchestral works and not very applicable to natural trumpets and horns. Partly due to the character of the composition I decided to abandon trumpets and timpani, and to use a chamber orchestra with double woodwinds and only one pair of horns. One could possibly expect that I simply copied the string parts of the Piano Quintet into the orchestra, but already in the fifth bar it turned out more effective to unleash this idea: I better could work from the version for two pianos. After a lot of trial and error, I finally finished this 'labour of love' in May 2018. I am very happy with the fact that my former fellow student and friend, conductor Arie van Beek, saw the historical relevance of my work, and seized the opportunity to conduct a CD-recording with his Orchestre de Picardie, followed by the first public performance in Abbeville on May 30, 2021.
Henk de Vlieger
Orchestra: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings
Duration: 45 minutes