Brahms: The view from the keyboard
by Dan Stewart for Vocal Area Network
Posted March 5, 2014

Dessoff: Brahms the RevisionistCathy Venable and Steven Ryan are both seasoned accompanists and accomplished solo pianists; Steven has been accompanist for The Dessoff Choirs since 1997, and is a regular soloist in concert halls across New York and New Jersey. Cathy is a frequent Broadway pianist, as well as being a staff accompanist at New Jersey City University. The pair will be playing alongside each other in Dessoff’s March 9 concert, “Brahms the Revisionist,” accompanying the choir in a four-hand version of the famous German Requiem and playing the precursor to the F Minor Piano Quintet, the little-heard Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34b. The pair sat down with Dan Stewart to explain the background to the program, how it feels to play these unique works on the piano, and the joy of playing together.

About this version of the Requiem

Dan Stewart: Why did Brahms adapt his Requiem from the original orchestral accompaniment into a four-handed piano edition?

Cathy Venable: Brahms wasn’t satisfied with limited opportunities for performance of the Requiem because of the huge orchestral and choral demands of the work. So he created four-hand arrangements for the six-movement version and for the full seven-movement version of the Requiem. This latter “London version” was used for the first British performance at the home of Sir Henry Thompson, a London surgeon. Rather than delegate the job of arranging the score for two pianists to an assistant, as many composers of his time did, Brahms took pride in creating it himself.

Steven Ryan: He was quite adept at piano writing, so he probably felt confident he could come up with a version that was viable.

DS: How does this adaptation differ from the regular piano reduction?

CV: Piano reductions of orchestral scores are often too dense to be perfectly recreated on the piano, and the pianist has to decide which notes are truly necessary and important in the score.

SR: Even though Brahms made it himself, it’s a busy, unplayable reduction. You have to leave out lots of things and focus on harmony, rhythm and pitch assistance. It’s not suitable for concert use.

CV: But Brahms’s four-hand arrangement for the Requiem is written as an actual piano part, so we can happily play every note with clarity.

DS: Are there advantages to using the piano accompaniment over the orchestral version?

CV: The four-hand piano accompaniment can give listeners clearer insight into every detail of the vocal lines, and it lets the choral effects be heard more easily.

SR: It’s a more edgy rendition of the Requiem. There’s no denying that the orchestral version of the Requiem is astounding, but the piano version is lovely and more intimate.

DS: Is it useful for you to know the orchestral score?

CV: I was rehearsal accompanist for the Tulsa Oratorio Chorus for eight years, and I became familiar with the original Requiem score during that time. It does make my job tonight much easier, because I can hear the orchestral instruments playing in my head as I play the lines assigned to them in the orchestral version.

DS: Do you imitate them?

SR: I think that a pianist is always imitating other instruments, including the human voice. That said, it would be impractical to imitate an instrument for every moment in the Requiem. You have to accept the sound of the piano and treat this as a full-fledged composition. There are moments that the piano needs to sound like the tympani, or like the harps, and that’s what you do as a pianist.

About the two-piano sonata

DS: How did the two-piano sonata come about?

CV: Brahms wrote it initially as a string quintet without piano, in 1862. After his friend the violinist Joseph Joachim said that strings weren’t an effective medium for the work, Brahms rewrote the composition as a two-piano sonata, and it premiered in 1864. His friend Clara Schumann then convinced him to rework the composition into a piano quintet. What a journey!

DS: How does the sonata version differ from the final, quintet version?

SR: Pianos don’t have the ability to sustain sound the same way strings do.That can make the two-piano version seem a bit overwhelming sonically, since the piano needs to project the sound more in order to sustain. You get a move active feeling when you hear the piano version, and the sound gets a little thick when both pianos are articulating with their hammers.

CV: But Stevie and I spend our lives playing chamber music on the piano, whether it’s true chamber music, or accompanying singers and instrumentalists, so we’re very much at home with creating lyricism on the instrument.

About both works on the program

DS: How different is playing the sonata from playing the Requiem?

CV: In the sonata, we strive to balance with each other, whereas in the Requiem, we need to balance with the massive sound capabilities of the fabulous Dessoff Choirs.

SR: The Requiem uses vocal lines and orchestral instruments for its melodies. In the sonata, the piano parts have to produce the singing lines. The sonata requires a much deeper tone than the Requiem, as there’s no other sound being created. The two are completely different.

DS: How does playing four-handed compare to a duet on two instruments?

CV: Performing at a single piano is wonderful because you can easily breathe and phrase together, but performing at separate pianos allows you a bit more freedom, and space, of course!

SR: Playing on one piano unifies the different registers for the Requiem. I do enjoy playing on two separate pianos, as it allows two different pedaling concepts, and it gives a bit more glow to the complete picture. One piano, four-hand playing is a bit tighter in its acoustics. It’s more intimate.

CV: But it doesn't affect how we work together. Ever since performing Gilded Goldbergs with Stevie in Dessoff’s first Midwinter Festival in 2012, I’ve cherished opportunities to perform with him. He’s a beautiful artist and an extremely fun colleague, whether we’re playing one piano or two.


Dessoff performs "Brahms the Revisionist" on Sunday, March 9 at 7 PM at Peter Norton Symphony Space. For details and tickets, visit www.dessoff.org.

Dan Stewart is a deputy editor at TIME.com, and was previously a senior editor at The Week magazine. He has been a choral singer since he was 8 years old.