Hyperion is proud to present as its Record of the Month for November electrifying new performances of the three Brahms Piano Quartets: the celebrated Leopold String Trio is joined by Marc-Andé Hamelin.
The G minor quartet (1861—actually Brahms’s second foray into the genre) offers a heady mix of unbridled gypsy vigour cast within a musical architecture of symphonic mastery, characteristics not lost on Arnold Schoenberg who later made an orchestral arrangement. The following year saw the premiere of the A major quartet, Brahms himself at the piano in offering to the world a work which would be hugely popular during his lifetime before falling inexplicably to the periphery of the repertoire in recent times.
It was over a decade later, in 1873/4, that Brahms returned to his aborted C minor quartet: ‘Imagine a man who is just going to shoot himself, for there is nothing else to do’, wrote composer to publisher of this profoundly moving score. Much of the 1850s material is recast, and the resulting quartet is a tense masterpiece terminated by a cadence of perfunctory abruptness. Unsatisfied fatalism triumphs.
This generously filled set is concluded with the Op 117 Intermezzos for solo piano. One of four late groups of piano pieces Brahms composed with his beloved Clara Schumann very much in mind, these exquisite miniatures find an eloquent interpreter in Marc-André Hamelin.
The recorded sound here is astonishing, both in its immediacy and raw energy: every passionate nuance of Brahms’s Romantic vision is perfectly captured. Awards can be expected.
In 1855–6, while wrestling with the work that would become his First Piano Concerto, the young Brahms embarked on an ambitious chamber-music project, a Piano Quartet in the difficult key of C sharp minor. It may have seemed a logical development from the B minor Piano Trio he had completed in 1854, and like that work it took its general inspiration from his current intense relationship with Clara Schumann. As with the Concerto, however, he soon ran into difficulties and eventually laid the Piano Quartet aside. It would not be completed for nearly twenty years. Yet in the meantime Brahms continued to explore the piano quartet medium, and over the next four or five years successfully produced two important examples of the genre.
His official ‘First’ Piano Quartet, the Piano Quartet in G minor Op 25, was seemingly conceived about 1857, drafted in 1859 while he was employed at the small ducal court of Detmold, and polished up in Hamburg in 1861. The abandoned C sharp minor Quartet had been an out-and-out product of his years of youthful Romantic turmoil, of Sturm und Drang. The genesis of the G minor, by contrast, spans from the turbulent years of the mid-1850s to the more considered classical stance of Brahms’s late twenties. It combines a troubled Romantic vocabulary with a poised, almost symphonic mastery of musical architecture. Yet the finale, with its unbridled gypsy music, displays all the young Brahms’s taste for vigorous horseplay. The whole quartet seems continually to strive beyond its chosen medium, towards an orchestral sense of colour, scope of expression and range of development. (These tendencies were given full rein by Arnold Schoenberg when he arranged the work for large orchestra in 1937.)
The sombre, spacious first movement is the most searching sonata-structure Brahms had yet written. The outer spans of exposition and development, with their almost reckless expansion and length of themes, are held in balance by the ruthless concentration on the one-bar motif that is the foundation of the very first theme, continually raising the level of tension, in the development. The way the recapitulation reshuffles the principal elements is unparalleled in a major sonata-style work, even introducing a completely new idea. The coda, beginning hopefully with sweet tranquillo-writing for strings alone, blazes up in a passion only to gutter out quietly in implied frustration.
Brahms calls the C minor second movement an Intermezzo: one of the first examples of the species of (sometimes deceptively) gentle scherzo he was to make his own. A delicate, moderate-paced, rather subdued interlude full of expressive half-lights, its poignant understatement throws the larger movements into relief. It refers, obliquely, to his love for Clara Schumann: the main theme is a haunting version of Robert Schumann’s ‘Clara-motif’ (a characteristic five-note falling–rising melodic shape), which Brahms took over in several works for his private symbolism.
The E flat slow movement begins as a full-hearted song, but develops into a strutting, almost military march in C major. This colourful parade somehow resolves the expressive tensions that have shadowed the work up to this point, making possible the sheer animal vitality of the concluding Rondo alla Zingarese. Startlingly extending a tradition of ‘gypsy’ finales that goes back to Haydn, this is the most unbuttoned episode in Brahms’s long love-affair with the popular and exotic Hungarian idioms he had imbibed from his violinist friends Reményi and Joachim. The movement’s devil-may-care abandon, with its extremes of pulse, virtuosity and emotional affliction, suggest his tongue was at least half in his cheek; and the extravagant piano cadenza that forestalls the whirlwind coda seems to parody Liszt himself.
The G minor Quartet was premiered in Hamburg in November 1861, with Clara Schumann at the piano and an ensemble including the distinguished Hamburg violinist John Boie. Exactly a year later, in November 1862, Brahms himself was the pianist in the premiere of the new Piano Quartet in A major Op 26, the performance taking place in Vienna with members of Joseph Hellmesberger’s Quartet. During his lifetime this was the more often performed of the two, but in the twentieth century the dramatic and fiery G minor Quartet tended to eclipse it; the A major Quartet is now one of Brahms’s more neglected major works. Certainly it is less obviously ‘exciting’ than the G minor—it is an altogether more poised and lyrical conception, laid out on an even broader, more symphonic scale. Three of its four movements are cast in sonata form, and their ‘heavenly length’ and extended melodic ideas testify to his study of the music of Schubert. Yet this superb work’s melodic richness is only one of its strengths; and the gypsy energy of the G minor, though no longer directed to merely picturesque ends, is still to be felt.
The first movement, one of Brahms’s largest and yet most serene sonata designs, opens with a theme presented in two rhythmically distinct halves (triplets in the piano, followed by more flowing quavers in the cello). These two ideas are apt for separate development, yet in combination they achieve a statuesque balance of force, and this double theme easily dominates the movement despite a rich cast of subsidiary melodies and figures; it has the last word, just as it had the first.
The slow movement is one of the most glorious Brahms ever conceived, a large but subtle ternary form articulating what Joachim called its ‘ambiguous passion’. The piano’s tranquil, song-like opening theme, and its gypsy-style cadential turn, are developed at length in ever-more floridly decorated statements. The piano is mysteriously shadowed by the strings, which Brahms keeps muted until the return of the main section: this throws the piano, with its desolate ‘Aeolian harp’ flourishes and ardent second theme, into unusual relief. There are anticipations here of the slow movement of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 2, twenty years in the future. The muted sonorities return in the coda, hushing the openness of Brahms’s lyricism.
At first, the easily flowing crotchet motion of the next movement seems too mild for a scherzo, too plain for a character-intermezzo like the analogous movement in the G minor Quartet. Yet it proves apt for an inexorable build-up of immense melodic spans. A more animated rhythmic interest appears only with the transition passage that leads to the second subject. The central trio is based on a variant of this transition theme, now turned fiery and Hungarian but treated with ruthless discipline as a strict canon between piano and strings.
The last movement is not a rondo but another fully worked sonata design; its first subject, nevertheless, has plenty of the capricious Hungarian colouring we associated with the alla Zingarese finale of the G minor Quartet. Here, however, the exotic flavour and idiosyncratic rhythms are subordinated to an ample, unhurried overall form whose length proceeds, Schubert-like, from the sheer size of the melodic paragraphs involved. The Olympian mood of relaxed strength satisfyingly rounds off a work whose perfect mastery is all the more remarkable for being so consistently understated.
Meanwhile, and for long after, the unfinished C sharp minor Piano Quartet remained in the composer’s drawer. In the late 1860s he showed it to his first biographer, Hermann Dieters, with the words: ‘Imagine a man who is just going to shoot himself, for there is nothing else to do.’ In 1873–4, however, Brahms took up the work afresh and radically revised it, the tonality dropping by a semitone, as the Piano Quartet in C minor Op 60. It is believed that Brahms recomposed the original finale to make it the scherzo; a new finale replaced it, and almost certainly the Andante is also new. Speaking about the end result to his publisher Simrock, Brahms still used the image of a man contemplating suicide, saying the cover should show a picture of a head with a pistol to it; and he hinted in various ways, both to Simrock and other friends, that the Quartet could be taken as a musical illustration of Goethe’s novel Werther (whose protagonist does indeed shoot himself because of his anguish over a married woman whose husband he admires: the parallel with Brahms’s situation with regard to the Schumanns is obvious). Even now he delayed for nearly a year before making the work public: the premiere finally took place in Vienna on 18 November 1875, with Brahms at the piano, Joseph Hellmesberger on violin, and the famous virtuoso David Popper on cello.
The first movement’s opening pitches us into a whirlpool of Romantic tribulation. The strings gasp out a two-note phrase that seems to speak the name ‘Clara’, and immediately unwinds a transposed version of Schumann’s personal ‘Clara-motif’. This is repeated in a different key before a stormy transition moves to a lyrical, Schubertian second subject whose self-contained melody immediately gives rise to a little group of four variations. The development is wrathfully strenuous; and in the recapitulation the group of variations is extended to project the music into a bitter, strife-torn coda that finally subsides as if exhausted.
The scherzo, in C minor, is a splendid movement in Brahms’s early vein of rhythmic dynamism. The tense, muttering figure of the opening dominates the proceedings. A plaintive, chant-like second theme is the only element with pathos enough to interrupt the powerful rhythmic drive. Unusually, there is no central trio section (a feature that supports the idea this was originally a finale); the movement is through-composed, building to an abrupt ending full of vehement defiance.
The song-like cello theme that begins the E major Andante, continued in a rapt duet with violin, brings emotional assuagement and calm. Here is the still centre of the work, encompassed in a broad sonata form with a dolce second subject in B major. The start of the recapitulation, with the cello melody now in octaves on the piano, accompanied by guitar-like pizzicati from the cello and viola, is wonderfully evocative.
A mood of anxiety and regret pervades the opening of the finale, a long violin solo against a relentless moto perpetuo quaver accompaniment. The quavers are augmented to form an irascible transition theme, and the second subject turns out to be an odd, quasi-religious chorale for the strings, with flippant (or perhaps cynical) rejoinders from the piano. There is a spectral air to the development, which brings about the intensified recapitulation, the piano eventually hammering out the chorale idea in a choleric C major. Then the movement gradually liquidates itself with a sense of exhaustion. The curt final cadence (Werther pulling the trigger?) indicates that the mood of unsatisfied fatalism has triumphed.
While all three piano quartets are in essence ‘early’ works, even though the C minor was brought to fruition in utter compositional maturity, the Three Intermezzi Op 117 are products of the final phase of Brahms’s creativity. They belong to the astonishing late harvest of short piano pieces that he composed in 1892–3 and published in four collections, Opp 116 to 119. Like the quartets they were written very much with Clara Schumann in mind, for she was destined as the first pianist to see them; but their moods are autumnal, as befits the utterances of nearly forty years of love and friendship. Op 117 could be considered a triptych of lullabies. The first, in E flat, is headed by lines from an actual Scots lullaby (the Border Ballad ‘Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament’) in the German translation of Johann Gottfried Herder—and its unforgettable tune, a middle voice gently rocked within a repeated octave span, fits the words like a glove. (This wordless setting of a Scots original parallels Brahms’s early D minor Ballade, Op 10 No 1, after the Scots ballad ‘Edward’). The central section descends to a dark E flat minor tonality which increases the poignancy of the lulling reprise, with its cunningly interwoven imitation.
The second Intermezzo, in B flat minor, wrings music of plaintive delicacy from a simple falling arpeggio figure that melts, with fluid grace, through a succession of tonalities: and the piece traces a miniature sonata design, with a more smoothly flowing second subject in D flat. Development and reprise merge into one another through spiralling arpeggio figuration: the coda finally imposes tonal stability in the shape of an uneasy pedal F, over which the second idea dies away.
Like the first piece the third Intermezzo, in C sharp minor, evokes a ballad character, though this time without a specifically indicated subject. This is a comparatively spacious movement, beginning sombrely and sotto voce with a quintessentially Brahmsian theme presented in severe octaves. On later appearances this melody becomes an inner voice against a rich harmonic background; there is a strongly contrasting middle section in A major, whose gently syncopated figuration and octave displacements create a twilit world of almost impressionistic gleams and half-lights. At once one of the darkest and most beautiful of Brahms’s late piano pieces, it is now believed to be an unacknowledged setting of another of Herder’s translations of Scottish poems, a love-lament beginning ‘Oh woe! Oh woe, deep in the valley …’, which Brahms had copied out on the same sheet as ‘Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament’. But all three of these pieces seem to have had some secret significance for him: they were, he told his friend Rudolf von der Leyen, ‘three lullabies for my sorrows’.
Calum MacDonald © 2006