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If it were necessary for composers to play all of the instruments for which they write, the musical literature would be very scant indeed. Fortunately, it is not. In the case of Brahms, there is no evidence that he ever played the violin. His understanding of the violin came about in a very personal, almost hands-on way. When he was only 17, he went on the road as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi. At the elbow of this brilliant fiddler, young Johannes learned much about the instrument’s technique and, as a bonus, came to know and love the Hungarian music Reményi always included on his programs.

But Brahms’ debt to Reményi does not stop there, for it was he who introduced the young composer to Joseph Joachim, who, although only two years older than Brahms, was, at age 22 when they met, already a famous artist. A friendship developed immediately between the two musicians, a friendship which, except for a brief period, was deep and abiding.

The personal and musical value of Joachim’s friendship to Brahms is impossible to measure. It was Joachim who godfathered Brahms’ Violin Concerto and whose spirit hovers over Brahms’ three Violin Sonatas, the Double Concerto, and the Scherzo on tonight’s program.

The Scherzo is now something of an orphan, although it was intended to be the second movement of a collaborative sonata, conceived as a welcoming gift for Joachim in Düsseldorf, with a first movement written by Albert Dietrich, the third and fourth by Robert Schumann. The recipient was asked to guess the author of each movement, which he did quite easily. [The F.A.E. of the title are the letters of Joachim’s maxim, Frei, aber einsam (Free, but lonely), and are used as notes of a motif of the sonata.]

Brahms’ contribution could hardly be mistaken – the composer’s youthful (age 20) footprints are evident: the taut energy, beginning with the violin’s Beethovenesque three-short-and-a-long; the syncopations and cross-rhythms; the intermezzo-like lyricism of a trio that can’t resist brandishing some main section materials for the sake of unity; and a closing grandeur which seems to define the “young eagle’s” (Schumann’s appellation) soaring aspirations and his extravagant regard for Joachim.

– Orrin Howard