Three major chamber music works are on the programme when Leif Ove Andsnes and friends invite us to participate in this treasure here in Grieghallen this evening. Tchaikovsky’s colourful scrapbook from his travels in Italy, Brahms’s third Piano Quartet, which he spent twenty years finishing, and Béla Bartók’s second Violin Sonata from 1922.
Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Tchaikovsky met seldom, and had little regard for each other’s music.
When Pyotr Tchaikovsky set out on his first European tour in 1887, his first stop was Leipzig. He had been invited to conduct his own work with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and it was there he met up with his old friend Adolph Brodsky, the orchestra’s concert master.
During his stay he also met Johannes Brahms. Brahms had recently completed a new Piano Trio, and while rehearsing it at Brodsky’s home with Julius Klengel on the cello, they were visited by Tchaikovsky. As the Russian was about to leave, Brodsky asked his opinion of Brahms’s trio. ‘I am sorry, my friend, but I didn’t like it,’ was the reply. Brahms’s opinion of Tchaikovsky’s music was much the same.
Admirers of Grieg
The two composers nevertheless had something in common. They both admired and appreciated the music of Edvard Grieg. That Christmas they met Edvard and Nina at the Brodsky’s house in Leipzig. For Tchaikovsky it was a hearty meeting, and on hearing Nina sing Grieg’s songs accompanied by her husband, he was so impressed that he later dedicated several of his own songs to Nina Grieg. He also corresponded with Grieg until his death five years later.
After Leipzig Tchaikovsky continued his journey through Europe, and in keeping with expectations of Grand Tours at the time his final destination was Italy. Tchaikovsky’s patron, Nadezhda von Meck, financed the entire tour to permit him to concentrate on composing. A delightful scrapbook is the result of his time in Italy: the String Quintet entitled Souvenir de Florence.
Dark and profound
Johannes Brahms was a great friend of Clara and Robert Schumann, and was influenced by Schumann’s music and his attitude towards it. Few composers have contributed as much to the waste basket as Brahms. He was extremely self-critical. An example of this is that he had written many sketches for symphonies before the four reached publication towards the end of his life.
He also spent a long time on other works. His Piano Quartet no. 3 on this evening’s programme is based on sketches from as early as 1855, though it was not completed until twenty years later. It contains some of the darkest – and at the same time most truly beautiful – music ever composed by Brahms.
Towards the end of his life Brahms met Edvard Grieg on several occasions on the European continent, and Grieg invited him to Troldhaugen – ‘for there you will find material for your fifth symphony’. Brahms never made it to Bergen, so the fifth symphony never saw the light of day.
On the trail of the Hardanger fiddle
Béla Bartók also had encounters with Edvard Grieg. Visiting Paris in 1910 he discovered that students and teachers at the conservatoire were interested in Grieg’s Slåtter, opus 72. This was not the romantic composer of haunting melodies: this was ‘le nouveau Grieg’. When he learned that these were based on Hardanger fiddle tunes, his interest was awakened and he came to Norway. Here he took a boat along the coast and made contact with fiddlers. He also bought a couple of Hardanger fiddles.
Another interesting point of contact between Grieg and Bartók is to be found in the latter’s postulation that ‘… we must always study Grieg. He was the first composer to cast off the German yoke from his shoulders.’
Reviving peasant music
Bartók, like both Tchaikovsky and Brahms before him, used motifs and ideas from folk music. Of the sonata on this evening’s programme it is said that Bartók revived peasant music in it; from improvisations and universal folk music formulas to the most beautiful and elaborate lyrical songs.
On completing the sonata in 1922, Bartók said to a friend that his two sonatas were little suited to a rural audience. Could he have been mistaken?
Erling Dahl jr.
English version Roger Martin