Why was Brahms So Wistful? Trufflemusik’s New Classical Release Reimagines “Relentless Magnetic North of Melancholy”
Deep in the heart of Hollywood, rock is usually rolling around EastWest Studios — the famous venue where everyone from The Beach Boys to U2, Iggy Pop, AC/DC and Metallica, have recorded, including Lady Gaga on the 2019 Oscar-winning Best Song “Shallow” from A Star is Born.
So, it’s almost counter intuitive to imagine an emotionally wistful album called “A Sweet of Brahms” being recorded there. In fact, pianist Liz Myers, of the entertaining chamber music duo, Trufflemusik, charmingly admits, “Recording classical music is a fine art but not a lot of time is spent recording such music these days; I heard they had a nine-foot Bechstein concert grand at EastWest, one of the best pianos in town to record with. Bechstein is a huge piano, with a gigantic bass section, and because it has a very resonant sound, it’d been used for rock recordings. And, it was located in a pretty live room. So, I was all in. Moreover, my Trufflemusik partner and extraordinary cellist Paula Hochhalter has done over a hundred sessions there, including ‘plenty of rock and roll’ sessions.”
While classically trained, Trufflemusik’s two players are widely known for their award-winning and Hollywood work as performers, composers and arrangers, an experience that has helped add power and impact to their more classical work. So, when the duo, which had previously recorded “A Sweet of Beethoven,” were inspired to consider Brahms, they were looking at recording the master, like we’ve never heard him before, in a heretofore rock and roll studio.
The nine pieces from Brahms’ Opus 117 and 118 piano compositions come from a special time in the German composer’s life. As a teen he played gigs in Hamburg’s brothels and became a bon vivant and prankster, but as he aged he may’ve reflected on his lifelong bachelor ways, perhaps speculating too late about how his life with his mentor and muse Clara Schumann might’ve developed. Indeed, these later pieces are full of romantic notions, especially Opus 118 №2, that has been called a love song to Clara.
Trufflemusik sought to capture those emotions with Hochhalter suggesting, “Brahms was pretty deep, he really wore his heart on his sleeve. We tried to capture his general wistfulness, looking at the end of his life, as one does, and the many emotions that come to the fore. I told Liz, I think №2 is the most beautiful piece ever written, just so romantic.” There’s also the speculation that the prankster, who could write these beautiful romantic yearnings, maybe couldn’t live them himself, but that’s for others to conjecture.
LIKE WAVES ON THE SHORE
Trufflemusik was formed in 2017 to create an expanded repertoire that has been reimagined for cello and piano, and the duo strongly felt that this Brahms’ music was ripe for some cello. Myers recalls:
“Within some of Brahms’ works there’d be these little notations, like a single note with a crescendo after it. But with the piano, once you hit the note, you can’t crescendo it. It’s not like a stringed instrument where you can lean into it. I wondered, Why would he do that? Maybe he’s starting to hear resonance coming out of these chords. So what if we added the cello there?”
Myers and Hochhalter had met when performing contemplative music at Westwood Presbyterian Church with its jewel-like sanctuary. When they started recording their music, they discovered they “were both Brahms’ freaks.” So, Myers first reimagined Opus 117 as an arrangement, picking the melodies that felt appropriate for the cello. Hochhalter picks up the thread:
“When we were performing at Liz’s church, she brought these pieces to me and suggested we put in cello lines and knit it together. I’d been listening to some other recordings of these Brahms’ pieces, and there were moments where he brought out a bass line and I could feel this music was so ripe for some cello. The cello is so vocal, like the range of a human voice, from the soprano register to those warm bass notes. But the cello, which some consider the sound of the human soul, can then soar with the melody. It seemed like an obvious fit.”
SETTLE BACK & GIVE IN
So, adding in both cello and their Hollywood session experience, the result of “A Sweet of Brahms” is both sonorous and vibrant, a lively and strong reimagination of a classical master. The nine pieces run the gamut of emotions from heroic fanfares to wistful studies in nostalgia and melancholy. People, who’ve sampled it, suggest it’s best not to just drop in on it, that you have to get into the mood — create a space where your mind is contemplative.
Trufflemusik gives a tasty backgrounder on “A Sweet of Brahms”:
•Opus 117 — Intermezzi 1, 2 & 3
The opening of Opus 117 is reminiscent of Brahms’s famous lullaby with the lyrics “Sleep softly, my child” beginning the sheet music. Then, each Intermezzo is structured in the A — B — A form that Brahms loved — begin with a theme, move away from the theme to a completely opposite mood and style, and then return with some new insights into the original theme.
•Opus 118 — Intermezzi Klavierstücke 1 to 6
At age 60, Brahms was enjoying the respect due “Herr Doctor Brahms,” living the esteemed professor’s life in his apartment on Karlsgasse Strasse in Vienna. There one could find his famous Graf piano given to him by his muse Clara Schumann. These piano pieces are described as “sublimely introspective.”
№1 — is truly a fanfare, announcing something wonderful is about to arrive.
№2 — is a love song to Clara Schumann whose daughter Eugenie stated in her biography that Clara played it for Brahms just before she died.
№3 — is a bawdy saloon dance, reminiscent of Brahms’s time as a teenager playing piano in Hamburg’s brothels.
№4 — is about gossip and meditation, a constant murmuring of conversation, bordering on spirituality.
№5 — visits the narthex of the church, with its canon-like motif, only to gaze out the window of the sanctuary to the other Teutonic deity, Nature, where bubbling brooks and bird calls abound.
№6 — arguably the most sublime of all these Intermezzi, and the perfect way to end this delightful interlude.
Putting this together was a “labor of love” by these two Brahms’ fans, but what Trufflemusik has so vibrantly produced is taking tried-and-true music and making it sound fresh and alive. Many chamber musicians can play the right notes but what Trufflemusik has done is to make Brahms’ sound like their own — with some lovely phrasing and some muscular playing on that German Bechstein by Myers, combined with Hochhalter, with her Italian Bartolomeo Obici cello, adding in her profound understanding of what a cello can do as a melodic instrument.
Myers adds, “Paula and I have attempted to reimagine the works as true to Brahms’ intentions as possible. But we’ve definitely added our own twist to the performance sound and enhanced the impact possible for audiences after being performers on hundreds of film and commercial scoring sessions.”
Recording engineer Gabe Moffat wanted to capture both intimacy and acoustic space, and used an array of near-field, mid-field and distant overhead microphones to achieve that balance. The piano and cello were tightly grouped with the players facing each other, with Myers explaining, “Normally with chamber music, the cellist is positioned in the crook of the piano, which means they’re bombarded by sound. But we preferred to be positioned so we could see and really ‘feel’ each other. I didn’t want to overwhelm Paula with sound.”
Much like musicians such as Yoyo Ma have spent a lifetime bringing cello to the world, Trufflemusik hopes they’ve expanded the cello repertoire and also brought out the depth of Brahms’ life experience. They trust that listeners, and fans of playlists like “Cello Melancholy,” will let this sonorous yet wistful music into their souls.
In challenging times, Trufflemusik invites new and classic listeners to ease back and contemplate “A Sweet of Brahms” which is now available for streaming on all major platforms including Spotify and Pandora, for download at iTunes and Amazon Music, and on other major distribution sites. Also, drop in on Trufflemusik’s “hearnow” page with direct links to Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and SoundCloud.