Brahms’ first reaction to the unrestrained acclaim of such a renowned and loved musician as Robert Schumann must have been something akin to euphoria. Reality, however, soon settled in on the young composer and he explained his concerns in a letter to Schumann: “The open praise that you bestowed upon me has probably excited expectations of the public to such a degree that I do not know how I can come anywhere near fulfilling them. Above all, it induces me to use extreme caution in selecting pieces for publication. I contemplate issuing none of my trios and assigning the C-major and F-sharp-minor Sonatas as Opp. 1 and 2. Of course,” he concluded, “you understand that I strive with all my might to cause you as little embarrassment as possible.”
If the young eagle, as Schumann dubbed him, flew with apprehension, he still soared expansively and with youthful exuberance. The B-major Piano Trio, Op. 8, is a large-scale piece which, in its original version of 1853, was about a third longer than the revision that we know now. Remarkably, Brahms waited some 36 years before placing the trio on his writing table to make alterations that would render it “not as dreary as before.”
It’s impossible to know exactly what Brahms at 56 intended to do to change what Brahms at 21 had written, but the first thing he did not do was tamper with the gorgeous lyric melody that the piano alone sings in its mellow alto register to begin the trio. Here Brahms the classicist indulged in his proclivity for song, the very antithesis of the motivic terseness that is intrinsic to classical development. But this melody was too grand to edit out or to alter, so it was allowed to remain intact, thank heaven, and a new, rhythmically vital second theme was created to replace the original, an extended melody that had provided no contrast at all to the main theme. The stage was thus set for a movement combining the warm lyricism and the muscularity which reveal Brahms at his most characteristic.
Brahms must have smiled with pleasure at the Scherzo second movement, for he changed it not at all. A good decision, for the main idea has splendid vitality and thrust, and the polyphonic treatment of the material displays a mastery that could hardly be improved upon. As expected, the sustained, mellow nature of the second section provides eloquent contrast to the virtuosic vigor of the initial theme.
There was little that Brahms was moved to change in the Adagio third movement, which is a place of mystical expressiveness, a quality the composer had in abundance even as a youth. The ineffably beautiful song for cello that enters midway and the heart-stopping answer to it from the piano, however, are mature additions that resonate deeply. The result is soulful poetry in the very best sense.
The unpredictability of youth marks the fourth movement, for here we have a minor-key finale to a major-key work. The main theme has a bit of the Hungarian to it, exposing a predilection for the Magyar that enticed a very young Brahms and that he took no pains to resist throughout his life. The major-key second theme was a new invention, but the thrust of the movement comes in the glorification of the first idea, which ends the trio with Brahms’ typically emphatic dynamism.
— Orrin Howard