Allegro non troppo [14'19]
Andante, un poco adagio [8'06]
Scherzo: Allegro [7'15]
Allegro non troppo [12'40]
Andante moderato [8'39]
Allegro non assai [6'48]
The Takács Quartet’s first CD with Hyperion was heralded as a uniquely successful collaboration: ‘the best string quartet in the world’ working under ideal recording conditions, creating a release that is ‘a model for what chamber music should be’ (The Guardian). They now turn to Brahms’s celebrated Op 51 No 2, a work which the composer held back for years despite frequent requests for it until it had reached his requisite standard of perfection. Brahms’s struggle with the string quartet medium eventually led him to find an intensely personal language for it, with an unmistakable originality of melody and texture.
The Tákacs Quartet’s recent performance of Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor with Stephen Hough elicited the following review: ‘Hough and the Takács are about to record this, and the result will be something to listen out for: chamber music does not get much better’ (The Guardian). Acclaimed for his concerto and solo playing, Hough is proved here also to be a truly great chamber musician; this recording is the product of a deep musical relationship. The Piano Quintet in F minor is a highly charged work of dark passion, often deeply sombre, yet always suffused with drama, requiring (and receiving here) the highest standards of musicianship.
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Brahms was a composer for whom musical inspiration did not always go hand in hand with the medium of its realization. His D minor Piano Concerto Op 15, for example, began life as a sonata for two pianos, before he began to orchestrate it with the intention of turning it into a symphony; while the Variations on a Theme of Haydn, widely known as an orchestral work, were again initially composed for two pianos. As for Brahms’s Op 34 Piano Quintet, it is such a firmly established masterpiece of the chamber repertoire that it may come as a surprise to learn that it went through two widely diverging instrumental manifestations before it reached its familiar form.
In the autumn of 1862 Brahms sent Clara Schumann the first three movements of a quintet in F minor for two violins, viola and two cellos—the same ensemble that Schubert used for his great C major Quintet D956. Her response was unreservedly enthusiastic:
What inner strength, what richness in the first movement, with the first subject immediately seizing hold of you! How beautifully written for the instruments—how easily I can picture them neatly bowing away … How bold the transition at letter B, how intimate the subsidiary first subject, then the second subject in C sharp minor, then the development of the latter and the transition back to the first subject again, and how wonderfully the instruments blend together, and that dream-like passage at the end, then the accelerando and the bold, passionate ending—I can’t tell you how moved I am by it, and how powerfully gripped. And what an Adagio—it sings and sounds blissful right up to the last note! I start it over and over again, and don’t want to stop. I like the Scherzo very much, too, only the trio seems somewhat very short to me? And when will the last movement arrive?
Not long afterwards Brahms was able to send the complete work to his other chief musical advisor, the violinist Joseph Joachim. ‘It is’, Joachim assured Brahms, ‘a piece of the greatest significance, full of masculine strength and sweeping design—that much is immediately apparent to me. I congratulate you, and shall be happy to hear the piece … Of course, I should prefer to play it through to you first … The quintet is difficult, and I fear that without an energetic performance it will sound a little unclear.’ But by April 1863, having performed the work on several occasions, Joachim had serious reservations about the effectiveness of its scoring. ‘I am reluctant to let it out of my hands without having played it through to you’, he told Brahms:
That would have been the best—indeed, the only—way of being of help to you. For I can’t be schoolmasterly over the details of a work whose every line shows proof of an almost overwhelming creative strength, and one that is full of spirit through and through. What I miss in it for unalloyed pleasure is, to pinpoint it in a single phrase, an attractive sonority. And I believe that if you were to hear it calmly this is something you would feel too after a while. Immediately after the second line, for instance, the instrumentation is not energetic enough to my ears to convey the powerful rhythmic convulsions; the sound is almost helplessly thin for the musical thought. Then again for long stretches everything lies too thickly. You’ll have to hear for yourself how it lacks repose for the ear … I find the passage in the last movement with the baroque hidden fifths and the rather insignificant melody really unpleasant; also the restless canonic continuation on the next page. You surely can’t like that either: it sounds artificial!
Brahms clearly took Joachim’s strictures to heart, because the following year he rescored the work in a radically different form, as a sonata for two pianos. At the same time, with characteristic self-critical thoroughness, he destroyed the string quintet, so that we have no means of knowing to what extent he revised its musical content. When Clara Schumann learned of the work’s transmutation she did not conceal her surprise. ‘I can hardly believe what you write to me about your quintet!’, she told Brahms on 10 March 1864. ‘Did you have it performed, and was it a failure? And for that reason you went and made a duo out of it? You seem not to have been satisfied with it in its original form, or rather its sound? Could you not have changed it slightly—there were only certain passages that didn’t sound well, but many others that were so completely quartet-like!’
A few months later, Clara Schumann played the two-piano sonata with the conductor Hermann Levi—one of the few outstanding musicians of the day to appreciate the genius of both Brahms and Wagner. (He conducted regularly at Bayreuth, and gave the premiere of Parsifal.) Clara was once again overwhelmed by the music’s grandeur, but, she told Brahms, ‘it is not a sonata, rather a work whose ideas you could—and should—distribute among the whole orchestra, as though out of a horn of plenty!’:
Many of the most beautiful ideas are lost on the piano, recognizable only to the performer, and not enjoyable for the audience. The very first time I played it I had the impression of a transcribed work, but I thought I was prejudiced and for that reason didn’t say anything. But Levi pronounced the same judgement quite decisively, without my having said a word … It feels to me after the work as though I have read a long tragic story! But please, dear Johannes, do agree just this time, and rework the piece once more. If you don’t feel up to it now, let it rest for a year and then take it up again—certainly, the work will afford you the greatest pleasure.
Brahms followed Clara’s advice, though rather than put the work aside he decided to revisit it while it was still fresh in his mind. In scoring it this time as a piano quintet, he was clearly attempting to arrive at an ideal amalgam of his two earlier versions, though there are moments—the fortissimo restatement of the first movement’s main theme, for instance; or the grandiose C major second theme of the Scherzo—that still seem to cry out for the greater weight of the two pianos. On the other hand, the smooth main theme of the slow movement, and—more particularly—the sustained sounds of the finale’s slow introduction, are undeniably better suited to the string ensemble. When Hermann Levi heard the work in its latest guise he told Brahms:
The quintet is beautiful beyond measure; no one who didn’t know it in its earlier forms—string quintet and sonata—would believe that it was conceived and written for other instruments. Not a single note gives me the impression of an arrangement: all the ideas have a much more succinct colour. Out of the monotony of the two pianos a model of tonal beauty has arisen; out of a piano duo accessible to only a few musicians, a restorative for every music-lover—a masterpiece of chamber music of a kind of which we have had no other example since ’28.
In the same letter to Brahms, of 9 November 1864, Levi made suggestions for improving the scoring of certain passages, some of which the composer accepted. One significant change concerned an angular passage in triplets in the central section of the slow movement, which Levi feared was too awkward for the cello. Brahms duly transferred it to the viola. However, for all the reservations about the two-piano version of the work expressed by both Levi and Clara Schumann, Brahms never lost his affection for it. He had already given a public performance of the sonata in Vienna, together with the famous pianist Carl Tausig; and when he sent the score to the Swiss publisher Jakob Rieter-Biedermann (who had issued Brahms’s D minor Piano Concerto after it had been rejected by the Leipzig firm of Breitkopf und Härtel) he made it clear that he regarded it as an equally viable version of the work. ‘To me and to everyone who has played and heard it’, said Brahms, ‘it is particularly attractive in this form, and it will probably be well received as an interesting work for two pianos.’ The work in both its definitive versions was dedicated to Princess Anna von Hessen, who had been present on one occasion when Brahms played the sonata with Clara Schumann, and had been so taken with it that Brahms gave her the manuscript score. In gratitude, she presented the composer with the most precious addition to his collection of musical autographs—Mozart’s great G minor Symphony No 40.
Hermann Levi’s description of the piano quintet as the most significant chamber work since the year 1828 was a reference to the death of Schubert, and there can be no doubt that in writing this work in the first instance for a Schubertian ensemble Brahms was paying deliberate homage to his great predecessor. As in Schubert’s C major Quintet, the theme of the slow movement unfolds in the middle of the texture in mellifluous parallel thirds and sixths, and it is likely that Brahms allotted it initially to second violin and viola (as did Schubert the broad main subject of his Adagio). The ending of the Scherzo, with its final note C preceded by a dramatic appoggiatura on D flat, forcibly recalls the closing bar of Schubert’s finale; and the manner in which the main subject of Brahms’s last movement is given out, above a non-legato accompaniment in regular semiquavers, may again prompt us to think of Schubert—this time, the finale of the C major Grand Duo D812, a work Brahms may well have played with Clara Schumann.
Schubert is not the only great composer who casts his shadow over Brahms’s work. In opting for the dark key of F minor, and a beginning that has the main subject given out in stark octaves followed by a dramatic outburst of semiquavers, Brahms seems consciously to recall the opening bars of Beethoven’s Appassionata Piano Sonata Op 57. Brahms’s semiquavers are actually more organically generated than Beethoven’s: far from being merely a means of whipping up excitement, they are an accelerated version of the solemn opening idea. Brahms maintains the music’s highly charged atmosphere by retaining the minor mode for his second subject, which appears in C sharp minor—a key that is to make a return at the start of the finale’s coda.
The recapitulation in Brahms’s opening movement finds him borrowing another idea from Beethoven’s Appassionata—and again putting it to highly personal use. Like Beethoven, Brahms fuses development and recapitulation into an uninterrupted flow, with the music’s tension maintained by means of a single note tapped out drum-like in the bass. The note is the same in both works—a repeated C that lends a dissonant aspect to the reprise of the main theme that unfolds above it in the home key. So unstable is this moment in Brahms’s piece, and so completely does one stage of the movement merge into the next, that the true recapitulation appears to begin only with the explosive return of the semiquavers.
The smooth main melody of the A flat major slow movement eventually gives way to a middle section that sets out in E major, presenting a more energetic theme with a yearning upbeat figure featuring an ascending leap of an octave. The subtlety with which Brahms unifies his material is shown in the reprise of the opening section, where the octave leap is incorporated into the main theme’s accompaniment.
The Scherzo is not in the home key, but in C minor, and its atmosphere of subdued drama is one that Beethoven often favoured when writing in this key. The grandiose C major theme that bursts out shortly after the start is actually an expansion of the quiet march-like idea that precedes it, and the trio is based on a closely related theme.
The finale’s slow introduction is the most sombre portion of the work, and only gradually do its tortuously chromatic phrases acquire a more diatonic aspect, so that the music may lead seamlessly into the uncomplicated theme of the Allegro itself. Towards the end the piece appears to be heading towards a peaceful conclusion, before a much quicker coda, based on a rhythmic transformation of the rondo theme, brings the work to a headlong finish.
On 17 October 1853, barely more than a fortnight after his first meeting with Robert and Clara Schumann, Brahms wrote to Joachim, setting out the list of his compositions which Schumann recommended him to have published. Besides two groups of songs, they included a Fantasy in D minor for violin and cello, a Violin Sonata in A minor, and two piano works—a Scherzo in the unusual key of E flat minor, and a Piano Sonata in C major. The Piano Sonata and one of the sets of Lieder appeared before the year was out (‘I still cannot get used to seeing these innocent children of nature in such proper clothing’, Brahms told Schumann when he first saw them in print), and the Scherzo in 1854; but the Fantasy and the Violin Sonata never saw the light of day. Nor did another piece Brahms mentioned to Joachim as having been praised by Schumann: a String Quartet in B minor. This, indeed, was only the first of many such works Brahms was to destroy in the years to come: in the field of the string quartet, as in that of the symphony, he was only too conscious of the need to live up to the great legacy of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In the end, and after much hesitation, Brahms exorcised the ghost of Beethoven by direct confrontation: both his first symphony and his first published quartet are in C minor—the key Beethoven had made so much his own.
Brahms’s first two published quartets, Op 51, themselves evolved over a long period of time. In December 1865 Joachim enquired whether the C minor work—eventually to become the first of the pair—was finished, as he wanted it for a concert he was giving in the new year; and the following August, Clara Schumann reported to Joachim that Brahms had composed a magnificent German Requiem, as well as a String Quartet in C minor. But nearly two years later we find Joachim reproaching the composer for never having sent his quartets. Not until 1869 did Brahms appear to show signs of satisfaction with his string quartet writing. On 10 June of that year Clara Schumann noted in her diary: ‘Brahms brought me two beautiful quartet movements the other day—a first and a last movement—the latter particularly successful and extremely imaginative and energetic. As for the first, I should have liked something different and more to my taste; perhaps he will still alter it, because it does not seem quite right to him, either.’ Just four days later, Brahms’s publisher Fritz Simrock urged him—not for the first time—to let him have some quartets. ‘Alas, I must ask you once more to be patient’, Brahms warned him. ‘Mozart took particular trouble in writing six beautiful quartets, so I will do my very best to turn out one or two passable ones.’
Brahms’s two quartets were rehearsed that same year by the well-known Florentine Quartet, but still he held them back. Only in 1873, after further revision, did he at last approve them for publication; and in the running catalogue of his works which he maintained he listed them laconically as ‘written for the second time Summer 1873, Tutzing, begun earlier’. The quartets appeared with a dedication to the eminent surgeon Theodor Billroth, who was one of Brahms’s close friends, but there are reasons for thinking that at least the second of the pair had originally been destined for Joachim. If Brahms had a change of heart about dedicating it to the famous violinist friend, it may have been because the two men had recently had a serious misunderstanding over Joachim’s failure to include a performance of the German Requiem that year during the Schumann festival in Bonn, of which he was Director.
It was Brahms’s early biographer Max Kalbeck who first drew attention to the significance of the fact that the opening theme of the A minor String Quartet Op 51 No 2 was centred around the notes F–A–E—an apparent allusion to Joachim’s personal motto, ‘Frei, aber einsam’ (‘free, but lonely’). Those notes are followed by a rhythmically more strongly defined motif which is to become the focus of much attention during the movement’s central development section. The main theme itself has a ‘rocking’ accompaniment in triplet rhythm on the viola; and the viola is to resume that same rhythm as a background to the gently swaying second subject in the major (sempre mezza voce, grazioso ed animato is Brahms’s evocative performance direction). As for the little motif that follows Joachim’s motto, the seamless transition from development to recapitulation sees it smoothed out; and it is this smoother version that is subsequently used to launch the movement’s quicker coda.
Whether or not Brahms was consciously aware of it, the theme of the slow movement is essentially an inverted form of the opening Allegro’s second subject. The sonority in which the theme is first heard is of a leanness that might have appealed to Haydn. It has the melody entrusted to the first violin, while viola and cello accompany with a smoothly flowing line moving in parallel octaves. Following this two-stranded texture, the full quartet sound emerges only gradually. For his contrasting middle section Brahms again takes a leaf out of Schubert’s book, and writes a dramatic, agitated passage in the minor. But the outburst is short-lived, before the emergence of a resigned, warmly lyrical theme in the major. It is this new theme that will later be used to bring the piece to a gentle conclusion—but not before Brahms has presented a full-scale reprise of the opening theme in the ‘wrong’ key of F major. The false reprise, if such it is, is perhaps Brahms’s compensation for the fact that all four of the quartet’s movements are in the same tonality of A.
For his third movement, Brahms makes a nostalgic return to the world of the eighteenth-century minuet. But this is no straightforward minuet, and in place of a trio it has a delicate scherzo-like passage in a quicker tempo. It is, then, a dual-purpose piece of a kind more often found in Brahms’s three-movement works, where the centrepiece can function as slow movement and scherzo rolled into one—as it does in the Violin Sonata in A major Op 100 and the String Quintet in F major Op 88. In the A minor String Quartet the integration between the two opposing types of material is particularly subtle: the scherzo-like passage is briefly interrupted by a return to the tempo of the minuet—once again in the ‘wrong’ key; but rather than invoke the minuet’s actual theme, the intervention is based on the melodic outline of the scherzo.
The finale derives much of its tension from a metrical conflict between theme and accompaniment. The main subject gives the impression of being largely in duple metre, while its emphatic chordal accompaniment is in a firm triple time. The phrases of the theme’s second half, moreover, divide the 3/4 bar into two equal halves of one-and-half beats, so that the accompaniment, remaining very much on the beat, sounds more dislocated than ever. The conflict is resolved towards the end of the piece, where the theme is transmuted into a gentle, albeit syncopated, waltz in the major. But in the end Brahms will have none of such whimsy, and the music turns back to the minor, and hurtles inexorably towards an accelerated conclusion.
Misha Donat © 2007