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Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99

Johannes Brahms

Brahms’ Second Cello Sonata, the formally more traditional but altogether grander Op. 99, was composed in the summer of 1886 for Robert Hausmann (1852-1909), the cellist of the Joachim String Quartet. (Three years later Brahms would write his Double Concerto for Joachim and Hausmann.) Brahms had adopted a pattern of composing during the summer and concertizing during the winter, and had made Pörtschach his summer home for several years, until the social press of local admirers there made that resort untenable as a writing refuge. After several less settled seasons, he made Hofstettin on Lake Thun in Switzerland his summer base for three consecutive years starting in 1886. It was in Hofstettin that Brahms began the Violin Sonatas No. 2 in A major and No. 3 in D minor, as well as the Cello Sonata No. 2, hence the frequent reference to these works as the “Thun” sonatas.

“In the Cello Sonata, passion rules, fiery to the point of vehemence, now defiantly challenging, now painfully lamenting,” the critic Eduard Hanslick wrote in review of early performances. (Brahms and Hausmann gave a private preview performance in Berlin on November 14, 1886, followed by a public premiere in Vienna ten days later, and repeated the work several times that winter.) “How boldly the first Allegro theme begins, how stormily the Allegro flows! It is true that the passion subsides into quiet mourning in the Adagio and fades away, reconciled, in the finale. But the beating pulse of the earlier sections still reverberates, and pathos remains the determining psychological characteristic of the whole.”

As Hanslick’s comments indicate, the new Cello Sonata was a match for the old one in terms of feeling. (Notice that Brahms marked the slow movement “affettuoso” and the scherzo “passionato.”) Indeed, in its contrapuntal rigor and somber Phrygian-tinged E-minor mode, it is the First Cello Sonata that sounds more of an era with Brahms’ Fourth Symphony (premiered the year before, also in E minor and ending with a passacaglia). The Second Sonata sounds youthful in its ardor, and tempestuous in its opening despite the major mode, usually more conventionally sunny than here.

This Sonata does have a slow movement, a haunting Adagio affettuoso in the remote key of F-sharp major, with a more turbulent middle section in F minor. F minor is also the key of the stormy scherzo, where the major mode is reserved for the more lyrical and subdued trio section. The finale is a rondo, and much the shortest of the four movements. There is indeed reconciliation to be had in the gracious main theme, but darker moments lurk in the contrasting episodes and the optimistic punctuation that closes the piece seems rather abrupt.

-John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.