Close to the Schumanns and admired by Mendelssohn and Wagner, Theodor Kirchner (1823–1903) was an accomplished pianist, organist and composer in his own right. His lifelong friendship with Brahms began when the two men met at the spa town of Baden-Baden in 1865. Robert Schumann had already mentioned him in the same breath as Brahms in the influential 1853 article which effectively launched Brahms’s career.
While Kirchner pursued his own, less celebrated career as a composer, he found a reliable subsidiary source of income in making the kind of arrangements through which many listeners made their first encounters with larger-scale works. He seems to have specialised in doing this for Brahms, who regarded him as an outstanding craftsman in this respect. Most of Kirchner’s arrangements were for pianists, either solo or in duet; the notable exceptions being these piano- trio arrangements of the two string sextets which number among Brahms’s earliest successes in the field of chamber music.
The First Sextet, Op.18, dates from five years earlier, premiered on 20 October 1860 in Hanover by an ensemble led by Joseph Joachim and published by Simrock in 1862. Here we find the beardless Brahms in excelsis, the 20-something composer always building up towards but cautiously skirting those perilous peaks of instrumental music which Beethoven conquered and defined in the string quartet and symphony. Falling between the two, the First Sextet in particular behaves like a veiled symphony, much as the First Serenade, Op.15, had flexed symphonic muscles a few months earlier.
Simrock commissioned Kirchner to produce these piano-trio transcriptions in 1883, and they met with the composer’s wholehearted approval; according to Brahms, Kirchner had ‘executed [them] superbly’. Kirchner replied that the new version of the sextets ‘would be a welcome gift for trio players’. The correspondence between the two men testifies not only to the warmth of their friendship but to the faith and trust placed by Brahms in Kirchner’s skills as an arranger. Brahms continued to recommend Kirchner’s services to Simrock, for transcriptions of his own and other composers’ music. He wrote in August 1891: ‘Would you consider replacing Keller with Kirchner for four-hand arrangements?... His elegant, buoyant style of writing would be much finer than the empty stiffness we now have.’
This new recording presents the two famous and beautiful string sextets by Johannes Brahms in the piano trio version by Theodor Kirchner, revised and authorized by Brahms himself.
In the 19th century most the major composers used to transcribe their chamber and symphonic works for various ensembles, usually for piano four hands or two pianos, but also for different ensembles.
Theodor Kirchner (1823-1903) was widely considered to be the finest arranger of his time. Brahms noted that Kirchner could make better arrangements of his works than he could himself. Why did Brahms want an arrangement of his String Sextets? The answer is simple: to make them more widely available. A string sextet, by its very nature requiring six players, was less likely to receive a performance than a work for three. This arrangement, was not only authorized by Brahms himself, it was requested by him. It became actually both more popular and more frequently performed in concert than the original! This arrangement not only entirely retains the character of the original but provides an added dimension.
Played by Duccio Ceccanti (violin), Vittorio Ceccanti (cello) and Matteo Fossi (piano). They already made an excellent recording for Brilliant Classics of the piano quartets by Robert Schumann.
Recorded October 2018 in Perugia, Italy.
Booklet in English contains liner notes by Peter Quantrill and a biography on the ensemble.