Brahms's Piano Sonata No 1, Op I: Barry Douglas Talks to Jeremy Nicholas about Brahms's Strangely Overlooked First Sonata

By Nicholas, Jeremy | Gramophone, May 2015 | Go to article overview

Brahms's Piano Sonata No 1, Op I: Barry Douglas Talks to Jeremy Nicholas about Brahms's Strangely Overlooked First Sonata


Nicholas, Jeremy, Gramophone


Brahms's Op 1: one of the greatest Op Is in musical history. Except it is not a genuine Op 1. The Sonata in C major was written after the Sonata in F sharp minor, Op 2, and the Scherzo, Op 4. It was a crafty marketing move by Brahms to assign the Op 1 label to what he rightly considered to be the work that, of the two sonatas, was more emphatically demonstrative of his talents.

Opus 1 and Op 2 are encountered far less frequently than the Sonata in F minor, Op 5. A surprising number of great pianists who have recorded and played Op 5 have not touched the earlier sonatas. Barry Douglas finds it hard to understand. He is working through the entire keyboard works of Brahms for Chandos--the results have been enthusiastically received --and has a strong affection for the First Sonata, which will appear on the next installment.

It's a work that is written to impress. 'The First Sonata is technically very, very challenging compared with the other two. That may be one reason it's not played as much. I can understand why the Second Sonata is not a crowd-pleaser because of its ending. The Third Sonata is a wonderful piece, certainly the most mature of the three and, even though it has five movements, is not as challenging as the first two. Perhaps that's part of the explanation.'

Many commentators have noticed the parallels between Brahms's opening bars of the First Sonata's first movement and those of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata and the fact that, in bar nine, he repeats the same figure a tone lower, just as in the Waldstein Sonata. 'Brahms's reverence for Beethoven is well documented, so it's quite possible it was an homage,' says Douglas. 'Certainly some of the textures and the way he writes for the left hand--that richness--do strike me as trying to emulate Beethoven. It was said that Brahms was a master of the old forms. Then you have Schoenberg who said that Brahms was the progressive revolutionary. So, in the old forms Brahms was revolutionary, which must have appealed to Schumann. In the [first-movement] exposition, already you have the elements of canon and fugue. Wagner wanted to throw everything out and start again but Brahms in a certain quiet way was able to shake things up and extend the range and expressivity of the piano. It began to sound like an orchestra. This sonata is really a symphony.'

Douglas points at the second bar after the key change from three flats to two sharps. T think there should be an extra bar here. The left hand works very well but I don't understand the right and why he's chosen G sharp--it's such an acute change of key. He's trying to get back quickly and it's a gear change that doesn't seem natural. It doesn't sit right. I'm sure there's something missing. And, look, the articulation is different: there's no accent on the G sharp [unlike the similar figure in the preceding two bars]. Maybe he knows it's a bit awkward. That's my theory. We as performers and interpreters must help that make sense to the public. Also if you skate over this section too much it just sounds chaotic. You have to take the audience by the hand here.'

He turns to the passage just after this. 'For me, this is almost like something out of The Flying Dutchman. It's very dramatic, very operatic, very visual. And here,' he moves on to the final page of the movement, 'this is like Siegfried. I think Brahms and Wagner are linked up--whether they like it or not!'

The slow movement is a set of variations on an old German folksong. 'It's a very melancholic theme sung in the Alpine pastures. …

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