Recording: Trio Opus 8 (Michael Hauber, piano; Eckhard Fischer, violin; Mario de Secondi, cello) [Arte Nova 74321 39047 2]
Published 1887

Brahms’s final piano trio is the capstone of the three chamber works composed at Lake Thun in 1886 and published in 1887.  With the F-major cello sonata, Op. 99 and the A-major violin sonata, Op. 100, it completes an effective concert of chamber music, but it also combines the best aspects of those two works.  The cello sonata’s passionate expression is melded to the modest proportions of the violin sonata, creating a tightly argued structure that wastes no notes.  Other late works, such as the upcoming violin sonata, Op. 108, would also make a shattering impact with minimal means.  The first movement begins with a great intensity that never wanes.  Even the broadly lyrical second theme has an element of disquiet.  Brahms considered repeating the exposition, but decided against it.  An unusually brief development section and an abbreviated recapitulation, along with a powerful coda, help lend the movement an overwhelming effect in its seven minutes.  The middle movements are even more direct in their expression. The delicate and skittish, but tragic second movement uses muted strings throughout.  The serene slow movement, a brilliant example of how mixed meter should be used, includes long passages of the two strings playing without the piano, a possible compositional preparation for the Double Concerto for violin and cello, the next work to be published.  The melancholy middle section maintains the sense of disquiet that pervades the entire trio.  This is only amplified in the scherzo-like finale, whose warm major-key ending somehow fails to completely banish the tragic passion and drama that are at the trio’s heart.  Especially well-loved by Brahms’s friends Clara Schumann and Elizabeth von Herzogenberg, the trio exemplifies all the best elements of the composer’s late style.

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck--includes some handwritten cues, presumably to aid in page turning)

1st Movement: Allegro energico (Sonata-Allegro form).  C MINOR, 3/4 time with two inserted 4/4 bars.
0:00 [m. 1]--Theme 1: Part 1.  Three strong, passionate, heralding chords in all three instruments, each followed by octaves in triplet rhythm on the piano, joined by the cello on the last one.
0:07 [m. 5]--Part 2.  The triplets are taken by the strings in octaves.  The piano responds with syncopated off-beat entries.  The piano figures are sometimes chords, but the hands are doubled at the octave.  The piano gestures move from triplets to groups of four against the string triplets.  Then the groupings become complex, superimposing groups of three onto the “straight” rhythm and disrupting the meter as activity increases and intensifies toward a sweeping piano arpeggio.
0:20 [m. 12]--Part 3.  New material based on a dramatic dotted (long-short) rhythm in an almost martial character, beginning with an upbeat.  After two of these gestures, the rhythm is passed between strings and piano.  All three instruments then join in octaves before a strong cadence in C minor closes Theme 1.
0:35 [m. 20]--Transition: Strings play in octaves with material based on Theme 1.  The piano enters with the newly harmonized opening chords and triplets of Theme 1.
0:45 [m. 26]--The piano left hand plays wide-ranging triplets against octaves in the right hand and in the plucked strings.  The cello then enters with a sinuous winding melody as the piano breaks into arpeggios.  The violin takes up the winding melody.  String octaves become syncopated in an inserted 4/4 bar [m. 35] leading to the dramatic chords that prepare for Theme 2 in the related major key of E-flat.
1:06 [m. 38]--Theme 2: Broad melody played by the strings in octaves, with piano arpeggio responses, also in octaves.  After the two initial phrases, the cello first breaks out of the octaves, then plays in counterpoint with the violin as the piano moves to block chords and the music works to a climax (E-flat major).
1:34 [m. 54]--The piano takes up Theme 2 in a very dramatic, passionate version with octaves passed between the hands.  The strings play plucked chords
1:40 [m. 58]--The strings take up the passionate statement as the piano plays sweeping arpeggios.  The strings break into syncopation as the music builds to a climax.  This quickly recedes as the strings also move to slower-moving ascending arpeggios, leading toward a more subdued cadence.
2:07 [m. 73]--Closing material: Gentle, slow-moving arpeggio figures passed between piano and strings.  The entry overlaps with the preceding cadence.  Close of exposition in E-flat major.
2:20 [m. 80]--Brahms interrupts the close of the exposition with loud piano chords re-establishing C minor.  The strings take up the opening of Theme 1, stretching the triplet figures out to entire 3/4 bars as the piano plays more rapid passages in octaves.  The home key and the return of material create an illusion of an exposition repeat.
2:32 [m. 87]--Here Brahms diverges from his opening material and begins to develop it.  Music resembling Theme 1, Part 2, but in slower notes, quickly becomes quiet and ominous.  The piano plays even more quietly in harmonized rising triplets as the key shifts up a half-step to C-sharp minor.  The strings interject quietly in isolated octaves.  Quiet pause on a dissonant “diminished seventh” chord.
2:52 [m. 98]--The main portion of the Development section is in C-sharp minor.  The strings play a melancholy tune based on the triplets of Theme 1, passing them between each other.  The piano plays a punctuating pattern with the left hand bass on the beat and right hand chords off it.
2:59 [m. 102]--The piano takes up the material with the strings playing in syncopation, in a brief diversion to D major.
3:12 [m. 109]--More of the melancholy material in C-sharp minor passed between piano and strings in octaves.  Sudden intensification and crescendo.
3:21 [m. 114]--Theme 1, Part 3--the dynamic dotted rhythm--makes a sudden entry with its initial gestures.  Then a passage based on this dotted rhythm incorporating scales passed between the instruments.  The music is moving back toward the home key.
3:36 [m. 123]--The initial statements of the dynamic dotted rhythm now incorporate triplets in their continuation.  The variant with the scales leads us back to the home key.
3:51 [m. 131]--Re-transition.  Ominous motion in the strings with low triplets in the piano bass lead to the disguised entry of the recapitulation.
3:56 [m. 134]--Theme 1.  Part 2 suddenly enters surreptitiously, but unmistakably.  The opening dramatic chords are omitted, perhaps because they were used at the beginning of the development section in the home key.  It continues essentially as at 0:07 [m. 5].
4:09 [m. 141]--Transition.  Theme 1, Part 3 is also omitted here in a typical example of the abbreviation of Theme 1 in a Recapitulation.  It is similar to the passage at 0:45 [m. 26], but it is heavier, more compact, and remains in the key of C minor.  As in the exposition, a 4/4 bar [m. 147] with syncopated strings leads to the dramatic chords in preparation for Theme 2.
4:25 [m. 150]--Theme 2, now in the home major key (C major).  There is some variation and more movement after the two initial phrases.  Buildup to climax, as in the exposition.
4:53 [m. 166]--Dramatic, passionate version of Theme 2 in the piano, as at 1:34 [m. 54].
4:59 [m. 170]--Strings take up passionate statement with sweeping piano arpeggios, as at 1:40 [m. 58].  Climax and  receding to subdued cadence.
5:26 [m. 185]--Closing material in C major (from 2:07 [m. 73]).
5:39 [m. 192]--Loud chords similar to those at the beginning of the Development section.  This time, since the recapitulation closes in C major, they do not shift key centers, but they do dramatically bring back the minor version of the home key.  They do not move to material from the opening, as they had there.
5:51 [m. 200]--Sudden eruption of Theme 1, Part 3 (the dynamic dotted figures), essentially in its initial form, but intensified by piano arpeggios and low bass octaves.  It is at a different pitch level suggesting a motion to A-flat major or F minor (related keys), but it rights itself and moves to the strong C-minor cadence heard in the exposition before the transition at 0:35 [m. 20].
6:05 [m. 208]--Extremely passionate and long-delayed re-entry of Theme 1, Part 1, with heavy bass octaves and the strings leading.  The piano plays throbbing triplet chords.  It is followed by further elaboration of the dotted rhythm (Theme 1, Part 3).
6:17 [m. 216]--Re-statement of Theme 1, Part 1 with the piano leading and the strings taking the triplet chords.  Further elaboration and extension of the dotted rhythm leading to a broad cadence.
6:34 [m. 226]--Very broad and warm (but still minor!) statement of Theme 1, Part 1 in the strings (in octaves), with the piano playing arching arpeggios held over from the elaboration of the dotted rhythm.  The theme is artificially slowed down with longer notes, and Brahms rather unexpectedly quiets the music down as well.  Two soft fifths are followed by two abruptly loud chords to end the tightly-argued movement.
6:59--END OF MOVEMENT [234 mm.]

2nd Movement: Presto non assai (Ternary form resembling a scherzo and trio).  C MINOR, Cut time (2/2).
A Section
0:00 [m. 1]--Strings play with mutes throughout the movement.  The opening idea, or “motto,” heard at the beginning, midpoint, and end of the A section.  Winding figure in piano octaves stated three times, each one lower, in a two-octave descent.  It is quiet, secretive, and somewhat ominous in character.  The strings initially begin with the piano, but they remain grounded to their original pitches in two off-beat echoes.
0:06 [m. 5]--Elaboration of the rhythm (long-short-short-long) of the opening gesture, beginning on an upbeat.  It is entirely in piano octaves, with discreet harmonies interjected by the strings.  Harmonic motion to the related keys of B-flat major and G minor.
0:19 [m. 14]--Second statement of the opening idea or “motto,” now in G minor.
0:23 [m. 18]--More elaboration of the opening rhythm, incorporating more upward leaps.  Piano octaves and discreet string harmonies.  Reverse motion to E-flat, then to its relative, the home key of C minor.
0:36 [m. 27]--Third statement of the opening idea or “motto,” as at the beginning, in C minor.
B Section--F minor (“Trio”)
0:42 [m. 31]--The piano finally breaks from its octaves to play block chords that establish the new key.  These are syncopated, beginning on the second half of a bar and tied over to the first half of the next.  After the first chord, a pattern develops with two long chords followed by a short cadence.  Against this, the strings play a plucked arpeggio, four notes from the cello, then four from the violin at a softer volume.  There are four of these patterns in two question/answer sequences, the second of which is more emphatic.
0:59 [m. 44]--Developed from the cadences of the last passage is a series of alternating phrases for violin and cello based on a long-short rhythm.  In the first three of these, the cello simply echoes the pitches of the violin.  The fourth diverges, with the cello playing a new answering line that moves to C minor and is somewhat louder.  There is a fifth sequence, but this time the answer comes from both instruments playing in harmony and leading to a cadence in C minor.  Throughout this, the piano has a bass in the rhythm of the pattern, with the right hand playing chords off the beats and strong syncopated descending figures at the end of each phrase pair.
1:26 [m. 64]--Full reprise (back in F minor) of the question/answer sequences from 0:42 [m. 31] in.  Two more phrases (one question/answer sequence) are added for a total of six (three).  The first added phrase uses an expressive, dissonant chord (a “diminished seventh”), while the second repeats the fourth phrase an octave lower.
1:50 [m. 82]--Re-transition.  Two more of the patterns with chords and plucked arpeggios, with the string notes reduced to three apiece in triplet rhythm in the first pattern, and the number of long chords expanded to four in the second.  An abbreviated passage similar to the alternating phrases from 0:59 [m. 44] follows, with the strings playing in harmony, the piano playing chords alternating between hands, and a long, expectant pause preparing the return of C minor.  This is the loudest passage in this quiet movement.
A’ Section
2:09 [m. 95]--Opening “motto” idea in C minor.
2:13 [m. 98]--The elaboration from 0:06 [m. 5] transfers the piano octave line to the violin, with the cello playing new but similar lines, first following the violin, then harmonizing with it.  The piano plays sweeping arpeggios that are far less “discreet” than the earlier string harmonies.  The passage effectively begins a measure earlier as the piano arpeggios begin with the cadence of the “motto” idea.
2:26 [m. 108]--Second statement of the opening “motto” in G minor.
2:30 [m. 111]--The elaboration from 0:23 [m. 18] again transfers the piano octave line to the violin with new cello phrases following and harmonizing with the violin, sometimes adding syncopation.  Sweeping piano arpeggios again begin with the cadence of the “motto.”
2:44 [m. 121]--Third statement of the “motto” in C minor.
2:50 [m. 125]--A short coda begins with syncopated chords similar to those in the B section.  The strings play plaintive three-note phrases, the last notes of which are lengthened and held across bar lines, with the last few patterns adding short ornaments.  This music is suddenly cut off.
3:04 [m. 134]--The long chords of the B section in the piano (in groups of three) are combined with figures from the “motto,” separated by long held notes, in the strings.
3:15 [m. 141]--Final statement of the “motto” played an octave lower than before.  A swelling syncopated chord (a last reminiscence of the B section) is sharply cut off by the final quiet, abrupt chord.
3:28--END OF MOVEMENT [145 mm.]

3rd Movement: Andante grazioso (Ternary form--ABA’).  C MAJOR,  A sections in 3/4+2/4 time (usually arranged in groups of 7 beats)--B section in 9/8+6/8 time (usually arranged in groups of 15).
A Section
0:00 [m. 1]--The strings play two phrases in counterpoint with each other, the piano remaining silent.  These phrases establish the mixed meter characteristic of the movement: in each, one 3/4 bar is followed by two bars of 2/4, essentially creating a 7/4 meter.  The metric irregularities give the otherwise graceful arching melody (taken by the violin) a somewhat unsettled feeling.  The cello provides continuous support in a freely flowing bass line consisting mostly of arpeggios.
0:16 [m. 7]--The two string phrases are repeated by the piano alone.  The cello’s line is transferred to the left hand, while the violin melody is embellished by right-hand chords, some of which are rolled.
0:31 [m. 13]--In a much longer and rather astonishing passage of strings playing alone, two contrasting phrases with new harmonies (still one 3/4 and two 2/4 bars) invert the direction, the opening violin gesture moving down instead of up.  They are followed by a varied reprise of the opening phrases.  The first is also in seven beats, but the second is doubled in length and the pattern altered with two 3/4 bars followed by four 2/4 bars.  This last expanded phrase swells and recedes to a warm, beautiful, and drawn-out close.
1:12 [m. 28]--The piano repeats the preceding string passage, this time embellishing both lines with chords, many of them rolled.  The strings do make a discreet entrance with plucked chords for one bar at the third phrase (the varied reprise).  The final phrase is given even more richness by the piano chords.  There is a slight slowing at the end.
B section--Quasi animato, A minor
1:50 [m. 43]--For the middle section, the meter is altered to 9/8+6/8, in phrases with one bar of each for a total of 15 beats (or five beats, each divided into three parts like a triplet rhythm).  The minor key and the new meter lend the section a greater sense of agitation.  Two string phrases are each followed by a piano answer.  The cello continues to pulse through the piano’s responses, which are in F major and E minor. 
2:03 [m. 51]--Four phrases, all beginning on upbeats, with shorter string statements and piano responses.  The string statements reach upward in a questioning manner, while the piano answers are longer, beginning with two repeated rising three-note groups.  The first phrase pair is in E minor, the second in G minor.
2:16 [m. 59]--At the movement’s climax, Brahms changes to straight 9/8 for a four-bar transition moving back to A minor.  The strings begin another “question,” but the piano now responds with ringing chord oscillations in E major.  The strings enter with two more echoes before the piano becomes quieter and completes the transition to A minor.
2:25 [m. 63]--Reprise of the two string phrases and piano responses from 1:50 [m. 43].  The second piano response is altered to a higher pitch level so that it stays in A minor rather than its original E minor.
2:37 [m. 71]--Another four-bar transition in straight 9/8.  This time, the string question leads into long held notes for both instruments.  The piano’s ringing oscillations diminish faster and are broken up with rests, ending with two isolated groups of three, with the harmony thinned to one note in each hand.  The transition remains in A minor, so the entry of C major for the A’ section is direct.
A’ Section
2:48 [m.75]--Reprise of the two phrases from the opening of the movement, but this time they are split between the instruments, the 3/4 bars taken by the piano and the 2/4 bars by the strings.
3:03 [m. 81]--Repeat of the first two phrases, with the roles reversed.  The strings play the 3/4 bars, the piano the 2/4 bars (the strings following immediately upon their completion of the previous phrase).  The rising arpeggios are more “filled out” with extra notes by the strings.  The piano responses add rolled chords.
3:18 [m. 87]--Only one mixed statement of the longer passage from 0:31 [m. 13] and 1:12 [m. 28].  The strings take the two contrasting phrases in a direct reprise of their earlier statement.  The piano takes the lead in the varied reprise (including the expanded closing phrase), the strings again entering with discreet plucked chords.  These are, however, now extended through the expanded closing phrase.
3:57 [m.102]--Brief coda in straight 9/8 based on the B section, specifically the passage at 2:03 [m. 51].  Two phrases in the manner of that passage, with string “questions” and piano answers (abbreviated to one bar through the absence of 6/8 bars and the original upbeats).  Then the strings play the first two chords of the rising gesture from the opening of the movement.  The piano responds with two descending chords.  Two more phrases of string questions and piano responses, and one more rising chord gesture from the strings.  The piano’s last two chords are unexpectedly and abruptly loud and short.
4:24--END OF MOVEMENT [109 mm.]

4th Movement: Allegro molto (Sonata-Allegro form).  C MINOR (Coda in C MAJOR), 6/8 time.
0:00 [m. 1]--Theme 1.  Very agitated, obsessive, and almost angry tune presented by the violin.  The piano accompaniment is very low, the left hand thumping out low bass octaves in the main rhythm after it is presented by the violin.  The theme begins with a half-measure upbeat.
0:10 [m. 9]--Piano chords shoot up the keyboard to an arrival point before the cello makes its first entrance.  It does so with the violin in a passage of highly syncopated string chords going against the main rhythm.  The rocket-like piano chords and the syncopated string chords make one more alternation at a higher level.
0:18 [m. 17]--Continuation of Theme 1 beginning with the piano playing the main rhythm.  The strings join together with more syncopated figures while the piano plays more rocket-like chords leading to a brief pause.
0:24 [m. 22]--All three instruments join in a climactic passage in which the strings generally follow the piano at a close distance in the main rhythm.  Then the music diminishes, with the strings dropping out before the thinned out piano, now consisting of thumping low bass and isolated chords, descends.
0:39 [m. 34]--Transition.  The previous descent is interrupted by a pause.  The transition passage itself consists of sustained string harmonies against very light, quick upward piano arpeggios.  The passage first suggests B-flat major, then moves to prepare for that key’s relative minor key of G for the second theme.
0:58 [m. 50]--Theme 2.  Brahms marks it “Meno Allegro.”  Like Theme 1, it begins on a half-bar upbeat.  Opening with quiet and ominously winding piano scales in octaves, repeated an octave higher, it suddenly gains intensity as the strings enter, cello first, with syncopation going against the rhythm and suggesting 3/4 instead of 6/8 (a “hemiola”).  At the top, all three instruments ring out in a loud passage alternating long and very short chords (G minor).
1: 10 [m. 58]--Theme 2 begins again, with the strings present from the outset.  This time, the top climax with the long and short chords is set higher, extended a bar, and more strongly confirms the key of G minor.
1:25 [m. 66]--Closing passage based on Theme 2.  Following immediately on the preceding climax, the piano begins a passage of perpetual motion in octaves.  The strings play fragments of Theme 2, including the long-very short rhythm.  The intensity and passion is sustained in all instruments.  The piano’s broken chords gradually descend.  The music recedes and swells until the cello is alone with the piano in another implied 3/4 hemiola (m. 75).  The cello, then the violin, quietly round off the exposition in G minor.
1:51 [m. 80]--Brief and hushed transition to the development section.
1:59 [m. 85]--First section.  Tempo I.  Two sequences, each consisting of two elements.  First, a version of Theme 1 in the piano with rolled chords in the left hand and detached octaves following in the right.  Then, long-held string notes over rapid piano arpeggios moving to a new key.  The first sequence is in G minor, continuing from the exposition, and the second is in E minor (which is related to G major).
2:14 [m. 99]--Second section.  The sequence continues, as the next passage is in C-sharp minor (moving down as in the previous pattern from G to E).  This passage is more extended, with the Theme 1 fragments passed between the strings as the piano continues its rapid arpeggios.  A cadence in C-sharp minor is avoided.  All remains light and at a quiet level.
2:23 [m. 107]--Third section or re-transition.  Hushed chords and bass octaves swell quickly in volume as they lead back to C, major at first, whose arrival is marked with ringing chords, more piano arpeggios, and more passing of Theme 1’s opening motive between the strings.  A huge swell in all the instruments confirms the change to minor, and two more chords set up the unexpectedly soon, but well-prepared return.
2:41 [m. 124]--Theme 1, as at the opening.  The obsessive string statements of the opening motive in the development merge seamlessly into Theme 1 itself.  Brahms marks that it should be played louder than at the opening (mezzo forte rather than piano) and adds plucked cello notes to the texture.
2:50 [m. 132]--Rocket-like piano chords and syncopated string chords, as at 0:10 [m. 9].
2:58 [m. 140]--Continuation of Theme 1 leading to brief pause, as at 0:18 [m. 17].
3:04 [m. 144]--Transition.  The entire climactic passage from 0:24 [m. 22] is omitted, and the transition begins directly here.  The omission allows Brahms to more smoothly allow the transition to begin at a higher level (a fourth higher), since there will be no motion to a new key.  The transition itself is completely analogous to 0:39 [m. 34] with sustained string harmonies and light piano arpeggios.  There is an analogous suggestion of E-flat minor, the home key’s related major key, where B-flat had been suggested before.
3:22 [m. 160]--Theme 2, again marked “Meno Allegro.”  Now stated in the home key of C minor.  First statement, as at 0:58 [m. 50].  Quietly winding octaves, buildup in intensity, syncopation, and loud, ringing passage with long and very short chords.
3:35 [m. 168]--Second statement of Theme 2, with higher, extended top climax, as at 1:10 [m. 58].
3:50 [m. 176]--Closing passage in C minor.  Again, follows climax immediately.  Perpetual motion in the piano, fragments of Theme 2 in the strings, receding and swelling.  It is shorter than at 1:25 [m. 66] of the exposition.  Four measures are cut, and the “hemiola” bar suggesting 3/4 comes earlier (at m. 181) and includes both string instruments.  The violin and cello are reversed in their closing gestures, with the former coming first.  This incorporates material from the four excised measures.
4:08 [m. 186]--Hushed transition to the coda, analogous to the transition at 1:51 [m. 80].
4:17 [m. 191]--The entire coda is in C major rather than C minor.  Beginning on an upbeat, as had the entire movement, Theme 1 is glowingly transformed in a major-key version, at the slower speed of Theme 2.  The violin, in its lower register, takes the lead, the piano playing slow chords, low bass octaves, and then swelling oscillations.  The cello plays plucked notes.
4:30 [m. 199]--The cello leads a major-key transformation of Theme 2.  The violin echoes.  The piano plays familiar rising octaves in a brief extending passage.
4:44 [m. 206]--Restatement of the Theme 1 transformation, now including the rising piano arpeggios in the accompaniment, with the cello taking a more active role, playing bowed in harmony with the violin.
4:55 [m. 213]--A long, drawn-out passage of acceleration, with the strings playing flowing longer notes and the pianos playing their now-familiar light rising arpeggios (reminiscent of the ones from the development section).   Near the end of the acceleration, the violin, then the cello, play the opening motive of Theme 1.
5:14 [m. 229]--Having reached the original tempo through the acceleration, the piano plays skittering versions of the opening motive with rolled chords in the left hand.  The strings join, increasing the intensity, with the cello now playing a leading role.
5:21 [m. 237]--The violin now takes the lead with the cello, the piano echoing them.  At the climax, which is the climax of the entire movement, all the instruments play a forceful descending syncopated passage.  A very brief pause leads to a lower sequence of this syncopated passage.
5:31 [m. 247]--Joyous closing peroration, all based on Theme 1.  The strings play the Theme 1 material while the piano plays rolled left hand chords and syncopated right hand chords.  The piano joins the strings in one more implied 3/4 hemiola (m. 252) before the final chords.
5:57--END OF MOVEMENT [256 mm.]