Istomin, Stern and Rose recording Brahms for the French Television
For Istomin, a large part of Brahms’ masterpieces are found in his works of so-called “chamber music”. But he underlined that the expression “chamber music” did not make sense, as no musician played it in a salon anymore, and that “ensemble concert music” would be a much more accurate term. He pointed out that these works by Brahms have the same form, the same quality of inspiration and the same ambition as the symphonies. In Brahms’ time, his trios were much more popular than his solo piano works! Of course, this observation about “chamber music” applies equally to Mozart, Beethoven, and all the great composers!
Rehearsing a Brahms Trio with Menuhin and Casals (1955)
Istomin performed the complete Brahms concert ensemble music, with the exception of the Horn Trio Op. 40 and Piano Quartet Op. 60. This means seven sonatas (with violin, cello, viola or clarinet), four trios, two piano quartets, and the Piano Quintet. He also accompanied Brahms songs on several occasions, the most memorable of them being in 1975 in Puerto Rico where he performed the Lieder Op. 91 with Maureen Forrester and Zukerman. His best-loved works were the Violin Sonata No. 1, the Cello Sonata No. 1 and the Trio Op. 8.
The Trio in B Major, Opus 8
In 1987, John Tibbetts held a very interesting interview with Istomin in which he asked him about this Trio. Istomin was able to give free rein to his love for Brahms in general, and for this work in particular. Tibbetts first asked him what he thought of the revision made in 1888, 34 years after the first version. Brahms trimmed the melodic material, simplified the oversized structure and reduced the duration by one third. Istomin fully approved of this revision, even saying that it could have been reduced even more! But he claims that, as it is, it was one of the towering masterpieces of the 19th century.
First page of the Trio Op. 8
“The con brio indication of the first movement is surprising, because the atmosphere is rather majestic. It should not be forgotten that Brahms’ indications do not have the same meaning as they do for other composers. For example, he indicates Vivace for the first movement of his Violin Sonata in G, although it is music of such nobility and serenity! In this case, Vivace actually means, ‘in happiness and bliss’. Certainly, there is brio in the first movement of the Trio Opus 8, and even a lot of it, but it only appears in the development. Then there is a truly irresistible burst of romantic passion. It’s incredibly captivating music. It has the privilege of great works -they totally involve us and we cannot resist letting ourselves be carried away!”
“Brahms didn’t change anything in the Scherzo – he left it as it was, and he was right to do this. It’s a somewhat demonic or, more accurately, ghostly scherzo. The trio makes a striking contrast, with its broad and noble song which is like his body and head, like his entire person. His music sounds just like him!’
“The third movement is one of the peaks of all music, an Everest. It is some of the noblest and most serene music which one can imagine. It is also a less problematic movement! Each musician can feel free to pursue his heights of ecstasy and his quest for the sublime. Good musicians don’t have problems getting along in this movement. We can all sing away, and play away. Of course, we give the foreground to the instrument which is entrusted with the melody! You adjust yourself, and when you “accompany”, you make sure to highlight the harmonies in a way which encourages your partner to sing more intensely, which contributes towards moving the listeners even more. In this movement, there is a perfect balance which allows each instrument to express itself. For the violinist and the cellist, there are very tricky and exciting solos, technically and musically. But, of course, the piano has at least half of the music – we shouldn’t forget that the piano has twice as much to play. The piano is Brahms!”
“The fourth movement is a kind of macabre dance in 3/4 in B minor, full of both grace and a ghostly atmosphere. It begins in the pale and cold light of G major. Then it explodes with apocalyptic, cataclysmic violence, with the piano running wild. The middle section provides a respite, with a theme that is both majestic and passionate, but it’s easy to understand that drama is inevitable. It’s not like in Beethoven, where goodness and willpower eventually triumph. The story ends badly, and the hero ends up at the bottom of the river or ravine. It’s really something very special to experience for a performer!”
Debating with Casals
“The first time I heard this Trio was the recording by Rubinstein, Heifetz and Feuermann when I was very young. Obviously, it’s much too fast, but it’s still beautiful because they’re great artists. I played this Trio many times with Stern and Rose. The last time was in 1982 for a concert in tribute to Abe Fortas, the former Supreme Court judge, who was a dear friend and who had died a few weeks earlier. I also have very special memories with Casals. With him, the cello solo of the third movement was something incredible, an indescribable emotion. The singing of his cello remains forever engraved on my heart. Stern also played it with Casals, and actually Casals was always a presence in our Trio when we played this work, when we played any work.”
“When I played Brahms with Casals in the early years, I bickered with him a little about the tempos, which I often wanted to take faster. Later, I realized that he was right. Brahms’ music needs to take its time in order to live – you don’t gain anything by rushing when it’s not necessary. Last summer, in Marlboro, I was very happy to pass on this experience to talented young musicians by playing this Trio together with them.”