Sonatas for piano and cello op. 38 and op. 99; Sonata, for clarinet or viola and piano op. 120 nos. 1 and 2

Ed. H-C. Müller (Vienna Urtext Edition). Universal


The natural question about any Urtext is “wieviel Ur ist es?”. With Brahms the answer is often “the later the better”. The revised at all stages from (a) the autograph via (b) engraver's copy, (c) proofs and (d) first edition to (e) his own printed copy of that edition, his corrections to which were usually available for the Gesamtausgabe. So a work like op.38, of which the sole extant sources are (d) and (e), might not seem in much need of further editing.

     Yet theres many an erratum slip between composer and compositor. Brahms (like Beethoven) could usually detect errors invoking a change of tone (e.g. by accidental omission); but he was always liable to go astray among different directions (such as hairpins or dots, which were quite often lest sight of). So it is always worth thinking twice about dynamics or phrasing or touch in any Brahms work except these four, in which Hans-Christian Müller and his colleagues have done our thinking for us.

    Instead of assumption or conjecture we now have the tabulated results of close textual comparison among all available sources – (d) and (e) in op.38, (a) and (d) in op.99, and (b) and (d) in op.120. One wishes that Brahms himself, and his publishers, could have had the benefit of editing as thoughtful and scrupulous as this. Müller modestly refrains from telling us specifically what amendments he can offer to the Gesamtausgabe; but further comparison discloses some noteworthy lacunae in that text, which can be filled by the following insertions. Op.38: f2 in the rh crotchet, I /119; op.99: a1, g1 and f1# in the triplet, I/45, c1 in the lh minim, I/94, and g1 in the third rh quaver, III /23; and op.120 no.1; e in the second lh crotchet, I/221. It is also a relief to be rid of that terrible d instead of eb among the lh semiquavers at I/18 in op.120 no.2; it appears not only in the original Simrock edition, as the editor says, but also in subsequent printing, including some currently available in music libraries.

     There are other more positive attractions. The piano part in opp.38 and 99 has been unobtrusively but deftly fingered by Detlev Kraus. The cello for its part has useful indications by Wolfgang Boettcher, who had some of them from Richard Klemm, who had them from Hugo Becker, who played the sonatas with Brahms himself – a sort of apostolic succession. One cannot but agree that the laying on of hands is a good practical approach to fingering etc. Similar services are performed for the op.120 sonatas by Jost Michaels (clarinet and piano) and Emil Seiler (viola).

     These latter versions are of particular interest. As we can hear from his songs op.91, Brahms imagined the viola as a deep warm maternal voice. Arrayed in the florid and thrustful clarinet music of these two late works, it sounds almost transvestite. Some listeners will accordingly feel that these arrange­ments leave much to be desired. But they are authentically Brahmsian, for all their ambiguity they represent a welcome and rarely-heard addition to the repertory; and their more reticent viola tone at least restores the balance indicated by Brahms’s own titles for his cello (and violin) sonatas, namely keyboard first. In sum, these are admirably scholarly and helpful editions, likely to be in steady demand for their clarity and completeness. It is good to be able to add, for the first time about any Urtext, that the English translations are generally fluent and assured. One minor crib: “they refused to publish [op.38]” for “jedoch scheitert das Projekt” is too free for the meaning and makes too free with the facts.        


The Musical Times, Jul., 1974 (p. 581) © the estate of eric sams