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About this Piece

The key of D minor was one that Brahms rarely used in his large-scale instrumental works, and one is left to wonder whether the towering shadow of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—in D minor—had anything to do with his caution in settling into that tonality. Clearly the tonality aroused Brahms’ most dramatic instincts, yielding music of great urgency, strength, and emotional intensity.

The D-minor Sonata (1888), Brahms’ last of three works for the violin-piano duo and the most muscular of the set, represents the composer at the height of his powers. With all of his symphonies and concertos behind him, and with only a relatively small number of compositions yet to come from his serious and still careful pen, Brahms shows himself to be a master intellect and craftsman, here in complete control of his distinctive materials. Indeed, in the first movement, the composer’s methods become an object lesson in Classic-Romantic procedures.

The dominant elements of the movement are very nearly all contained within the first four measures: three ideas in the violin—an ascending fourth, a falling eight-note figure, and a long-held note followed by a quick note—and, the fourth, the piano’s accompanying line in staggered (thus restless) single notes an octave apart. It is these highly concentrated motifs, so mysterious in their first appearances, which are put through a huge variety of compositional and emotional transformations. The most remarkable of these is in the development section, where the piano intones a pedal point on “A” for 46 measures, above which both violin and piano rhapsodize in a succession of key. This dramatic procedure occurs again at movement’s end, where, however, the action moves from the storms of D minor to the sunshine of D major.

The latter tonality is maintained for the Adagio second movement, a place of tenderness (and only momentary passion) that gives appropriate respite from the strenuous activity of the preceding movement.

The Scherzo movement peers with no little wit and élan from inside its minor-keyed façade (F-sharp minor), like a provocative child making all manner of expressions out of its exceedingly simple thematic physiognomy.

The finale is kaleidoscopic in its changing moods, which range from impetuosity to Hungarian pensiveness to chorale-like calm. Through it all, we have Brahms at his most impressive, at his most compelling. —Excerpt from a note by Orrin Howard