The Brahms Sonatas for Piano and Cello: Artist-Scholar Reflections on a Historical Performance Practice Project

The historical performance movement has succeeded in refreshing and diversifying industry-wide practices of music from the 18th century and earlier, despite the challenge of often limited source material. Late 19th-century performance practice scholarship faces the opposite problem: an overwhelming abundance of sources, providing uncomfortably direct evidence of a playing style that not only jars with current conventions (both mainstream classical and historically informed performance or HIP), but also seems at first to conflict with the very ideals of artistic integrity that we have inherited from the musicians of this period.

Joachim Quartet, 1904

The idea of being true to the composer’s text is an especially strong theme within the Brahms circle. In this engraving of the Joachim Quartet in 1904, Joseph Joachim himself is positioned nearly at the centre of the ensemble, but the star of the show is clearly the score itself, cascading gloriously off the music stand. When Clive Brown invited me to join him and Neal Peres da Costa on a historically-enriched edition of the Brahms Cello Sonatas, I embarked on a research project with a paradox at its heart. It sought to be more true to the score, as Brahms might have understood that phrase, by shifting its focus to information that can only be found outside the score.

The shared musical language between Brahms and his colleagues is not perfectly preserved in the text alone, and yet can be reconstructed from a wealth of other sources. An especially fertile ground for new insight is the technique of considering different source types in relation to one another. A treatise can tell us what a performer thought was most important to pass on to other performers; a recording can show us how these priorities were reflected in actual sound (within the limited recording technology of the time); an annotated edition can help us to connect the general priorities with the specific sounds, which often appear bewilderingly disjointed at first. Other more conversational source types (concert reviews, personal correspondence, memoirs) provide a weft against the warp of these fundamental types, by showing the various impressions the music-making left in the minds of a musician’s colleagues, students, and other listeners.

This project’s central goal was to make sense of all of the source material connected to the Brahms circle’s playing style, not only so that the information would be intellectually coherent, but also so that performers could graft it onto the existing roots of their musical instincts, leading to greater freshness, nuance, and depth in the performance of Brahms’ music. Therefore, a constant interplay of research and practice was essential at every stage of the process. Many elements of Brahmsian music-making went so drastically out of fashion in the 20th century that by our time they had either gone extinct (arpeggiation) or survived in a greatly reduced or altered form (flexible timing). Others took on different shades of musical meaning in the 20th century, creating false associations that now need to be set aside in order to perform them in a musically convincing way (portamento). At the same time, the effect of this research on my own playing was so profound that I ended up releasing my own recording of the Brahms Sonatas, together with my duo partner, Yi-heng Yang, on the Deux-Elles label in 2018. (I discuss these issues in more depth in the booklet notes.)

Thus, while the performance practice booklet gives more abstract information, and the sonata editions tie stylistic information to specific moments in the music, the recording models a personal engagement with the sources. Together, these make the case that a composer’s text is most productively served by considering all of the available information surrounding the text – something that is possible to an unusual extent with Brahms’ music.

Embodying them in my own music-making helped to set and refine my research questions in ways that would be either difficult or impossible to replicate through more traditional research methods. Individual practice is an efficient way to spot the tensions that arise between my reading of the sources and the matrix of my own training, technique and taste. These tensions boil down to three types of problem:

  • I don’t know exactly what to do with my hands
  • I think I know what to do, but cannot do it
  • I think I can do it, but I hate the way it sounds.

All three of these problems surfaced when I first began practising the fingerings in 19th-century editions. In response to the first, I shifted my focus from a ‘light’ editor, who wrote only a few fingerings, to a ‘heavy’ editor, who could direct my hands through an entire piece. In response to the second, I learned to play the fingerings in tune by combining a study of cello treatises with George Kennaway’s work on 19th-century deportment: keeping the spine long and the elbows low changed the mechanics of shifting, especially in the high tenor region of the cello where the most risky-looking fingerings occurred.

Joseph Joachim and Robert Hausmann, with their straight backs and low elbows

In response to the third, I used Roger Freitas’ work on the singer, Adelina Patti, as an entry point for studying 19th-century elocution manuals, which give very specific advice on the relationship between the meaning of a text and its proper pitch inflections.

Excerpt from an elocution manual by J. Weaver, 1846

I then mapped this advice onto the specific fingerings in the editions of cello music, to see if the rhetorical significance of each interval aligned with the character markings in the cello part. This gave me the beginnings of a grammar of pitch inflection, closely modeled on the various inflections found in both natural and stylised speech (e.g. elocution). See for example the difference between the grand, rhetorical slides in the exposition of the first movement of Op. 38 (up to 1:10), and the more tender, emotional slides in the coda (11:32).

Rehearsing is in some ways an extension of practising, especially on the cello, which has almost no unaccompanied repertoire during this period. This is the setting in which I can try out any new techniques connected to timing, voicing, accentuation, and sound colour. In addition, since colleagues will have different points of enthusiasm and resistance to new information, having thoughtful pushback in rehearsal exposes weaknesses in my theories that I hadn’t noticed alone. Finally, the rehearsal process highlights practical problems that raise new research questions. For example, when I was researching the Brahms circle’s multifaceted sense of timing, my duo rehearsals flagged the need for a historical sense of ensemble (what does it mean to play ‘together’?) and therefore a different approach to listening to one another as we played. A frequent observation among scholars of early recordings is the apparent ‘untogetherness’ or ‘untidiness’ of Romantic playing styles, often leading to the conclusion that the only way to embrace these earlier styles is to abandon our own time period’s commitment to tidiness. (Emlyn Stam’s recent PhD thesis is an especially thorough and compelling argument in this direction.) However, the Brahms circle was famous for being extremely fastidious about timing and rhythm, and the clues they have left us point to a different conception of musical tidiness in ensemble playing. Brahms’ younger colleague, the pianist Fanny Davies, wrote in her article, “Some Personal Recollections of Brahms as Pianist and Interpreter”, that “Brahms’s manner of interpretation was free, very elastic and expansive; but the balance was always there – one felt the fundamental rhythms underlying the surface rhythms.” In the third movement of Op. 99, Yi-heng and I did our best to align our sense of the fundamental rhythms – e.g. harmonic motion, motivic character, narrative drive, melodic line – which are served by the surface rhythms in the way that ornamentation serves the main notes in earlier music.

Live performance is a crucible that casts my music-making into a definite shape. On stage, my interesting new theories fall away, and I am left with whatever has convinced me deeply. This experience highlights aspects of the new knowledge that were too superficial, or too rudimentary, to be of use in a concert. For example, after a live performance of a Mendelssohn sonata, in which I had used an annotated edition by the cellist, Friedrich Grützmacher (1832-1903), I decided to look much more closely at the relationship between 19th-century bow technique and musical meaning, through a statistical analysis of various bow distribution markings in conjunction with character markings in one of his pedagogical editions (see my PhD thesis).

Sample table from my analysis of bowing and character in one of Grützmacher’s editions

The recording process gives me nearly the opposite perspective, as a setting for sculpted creativity, a chance to be my own listener, and a statement to the world that when I played a given phrase, I meant exactly what I played. This experience pointed my research toward aspects of professional polish that had not been a central focus in my initial engagement with the sources. I began to search for clues about the nature and role of a beautiful sound within the Brahms circle’s aesthetic, as well as any ideas about temperament that guided their intonation. The research led me to a cello sound that often withholds some of the instrument’s sunny sensuality (one reviewer described the basic sound as “almost gaunt”), allowing expressive notes and phrases to glow against this more subtle backdrop. Brahms’ colleague, Hugo Becker, writes in his cello treatise that “a meaningless little salon piece does not suffer from the same level of expression throughout”, in contrast to the second movement of Op. 99, which relies on an expressive power that grows over the course of the movement. In our recording, I aimed for a sound at the beginning that was austere enough to depict someone too overcome with feeling to speak expressively, while at the end of the movement the hero’s tenderness is allowed briefly to emerge, through a thicker sound and a wider vibrato, as well as more overtly emotional portamento.

Mirroring the diversity of source types and research methods for this project is the diversity of output types in the final bundle, which is specially tailored for musicians. My essay, ‘Brahms and the Cello’, gives an overview of the material connected to cellists who had worked with Brahms, as well as Brahms’ own direct experiences with cello technique as a youngster. The performance practice commentary combines the strengths of a treatise with those of a performing edition, by showing exactly how and where to apply the more abstract principles discussed in the essay, aided by the fact that much of the Brahms-circle source material includes references to specific passages in Brahms’ music. Collating them in the context of an edition marked ‘Urtext’ highlights the paradoxical nature of the project. The traditional definition of an Urtext edition is a commitment to the composer’s ‘original’ text, free from anyone else’s musical intuition, and is widely accepted as the gold standard of textual fidelity within classical music. The act of incorporating performance practice information as a set of glosses on Brahms’ notation expands the concept of an Urtext edition, so that the composer’s notation becomes a point of departure rather than a restrictive set of instructions. My recording, which is also featured on the publisher’s webpage for the editions, models a personal way of engaging with the sources, and aims to inspire other musicians to use the edition’s extra performance practice information to enhance their own artistic freedom. The liner notes for the CD introduce my practice-led research process to a general audience, and as such provide a good entry point for people who are not yet familiar with this style of research.

Further reading:

– Here is a piece I wrote for the Tafelmusik programme I coached in 2019: It was quoted at some length in one of Toronto’s arts magazines before the concerts took place and even called a ‘micro-manifesto’. It is written from the perspective of a performer, but shows more of the tight weave of research and practice that characterises my work.