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Hyperion Records

CDA67552 - Brahms: String Quartets Opp 67 & 51/1
Mountain Lake by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas / Gift of the Family of Joseph S Cullinan / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: May 2008
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: November 2008
Total duration: 64 minutes 21 seconds

'Their approach is alert, texturally clear and passionate … these are admirable performances which I recommend to any prospective buyer … this new Takács reading weighs in at the top end of the many available versions' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The Takács chart the music's undulating emotions with a compelling assuredness … playing of radiant warmth and phrasal sensitivity. Andrew Keener and Simon Eadon work wonders in capturing a warm yet articulate ambience for these physically imposing and richly detailed scores. Strongly recommended' (International Record Review)

'Just the team to make these scores work better than you might have thought possible. The austere Quartet in A minor benefits from the Takacs' warm tone and courtly romanticism. The late B flat quartet can feel lightweight, even inconsequential, in other hands. Not in this reading, at once expansive and refined … they're best in show' (The Dallas Morning News)

'The Takács Quartet extracts every ounce out of a score that pulsates with energy and convey its progression with unerring fluency. Opus 67 carries an ineffable charm. A thoroughly rewarding album' (The Northern Echo)

'This exceptional recording … the earlier work, profound and deliberate, is the ideal companion to the later, more graceful piece' (The Age, Melbourne)

String Quartets Opp 67 & 51/1
Vivace  [9'33]
Andante  [6'41]
Allegro  [10'51]
Allegro  [5'41]

New recordings by the Takács Quartet on Hyperion have become important landmarks in the musical calendar. This second disc of Brahms string quartets looks set to repeat all the commercial and critical success of their first.

It took twenty years for the famously self-critical Brahms to release his Op 51 string quartets for publication. Despite frequent requests, they were held back until they had reached his requisite standard of perfection. It is clear that 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. Op 51 No 1 is both suffused with great musical richness and organically unified, with each idea growing with unerring logic out of the last in a process of continual development, and the main subject of each movement clearly arising out of the same germ.

Having hesitated so long over his first two string quartets, Brahms managed to produce their successor, Op 67, without any protracted birth-pangs, and the fact that the new work was dedicated to a well-known physician prompted him to elaborate on the medical analogy. ‘I am’, he told Theodor Wilhelm Engelmann (the husband of the pianist Emma Brandes, and himself a keen amateur cellist) ‘publishing a string quartet, and may need a doctor for it (as with the first ones). This quartet rather resembles your wife—very dainty, but brilliant! … It’s no longer a question of a forceps delivery; but of simply standing by. There’s no cello solo in it, but such a tender viola solo that you may want to change your instrument for its sake!’

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
According to Brahms’s friend and one-time piano pupil Alwin Cranz, the composer destroyed more than twenty string quartets before allowing his first pair, Op 51, to appear in print. ‘It’s not difficult to compose’, explained Brahms, ‘but it’s incredibly difficult to get rid of the superfluous notes.’ Cranz may have exaggerated the number of lost quartets (he also claimed that ‘several hundred’ early lieder had met with the same fate), but certainly precious few of the manuscripts Brahms brought with him when he first called at the Schumanns’ house in Düsseldorf, in the autumn of 1853, ever saw the light of day. Among the pile was a string quartet in B minor which Schumann recommended to the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel, with the suggestion that they should issue it as the young composer’s Op 1. As things turned out, however, the always acutely self-critical Brahms destroyed the piece, and a further twenty years were to elapse before he sanctioned the Op 51 quartets for publication.

Brahms’s first two ‘official’ string quartets themselves evolved over a long period. A preliminary version of at least the C minor first work of the pair must have been ready before the end of 1865, because in December of that year Brahms’s violinist friend Joseph Joachim asked him if he could have it for a concert he was about to give. But nearly two years later, Joachim reproached Brahms for not having sent him the quartet; and as late as the summer of 1869 Brahms’s publisher Fritz Simrock urged him—not for the first time—to let him have some string quartets. ‘I must ask you once more’, the composer replied, ‘to be patient. I am becoming increasingly aware of how bad a virtuoso’s life is for someone, like myself, who is so ill-suited to it. Or is it easier for a person to change, and will I gradually become used to it? But in a word, not only is peace of mind delightful to enjoy (one forgets even that), it is in the process quite restorative to the things that preoccupy a virtuoso. Besides, Mozart took particular trouble in writing six beautiful quartets, so I will do my very best to turn out one or two passably decent ones. You will not be without them. But if I were a publisher today, I would stop applying pressure! I don’t mean to explain to you or lecture you by this! It is very pretty here, and in the days ahead the Becker [i.e. Florentine] Quartet will perhaps come and play you something new for publication?’

As hinted by Brahms, the two quartets were soon rehearsed by the Florentine Quartet, led by Jean Becker, but still he held them back for further revision. Only in 1873 did he finally allow Simrock to publish them; and in his catalogue of works he listed them laconically as ‘written for the second time summer 1873, Tutzing; begun earlier’. At the same time, he told his friend Theodor Billroth, an eminent surgeon: ‘I’m in the process of publishing string quartets for the first time, though they are not my first. It isn’t just my warm thoughts of you and your friendship that prompts me to place your name at the head of the first one; I think of you so readily and with such pleasure as a violinist and ‘sextet player’… I really shouldn’t reveal to you that the quartet in question derives from the famous one in C minor, because if you think of it of an evening and fantasize about it, it will be all too easy for you to over-fantasize, and then—the second quartet will appeal to you more.’

In the event, Brahms dedicated both quartets to Billroth, though the second of them had almost certainly been conceived for Joachim, whose personal motto, ‘Frei aber einsam’ (‘Free but lonely’), is encrypted into its opening theme. That Joachim’s name did not appear on the quartet Op 51 No 2 was perhaps due to the fact that Brahms had recently fallen out with him over a misunderstanding that led to the cancellation of a projected performance of his German Requiem at a Schumann festival in Bonn, of which Joachim was director.

None of Brahms’s large-scale works is more organically unified than the C minor Quartet Op 51 No 1. Not only does each idea grow with unerring logic out of the last, in a process of continual development, but the main subject of each movement clearly arises out of the same germ. The dramatic motif hurled forth by all four players at the start of the finale appears to set out in the key—F minor—of the preceding movement, while the rise and fall of its melodic shape echoes the opening movement’s main theme. Moreover, the stepwise progression of the finale’s initial notes recalls the gentle horn-call with which the three lower instruments preface the first violin’s theme at the start of the slow movement.

For all their musical richness, it is possible to feel that the orchestrally inclined outer movements are less successful in terms of quartet writing than the two middle movements, both of which are perfect and intimate miniatures. From a harmonic point of view, however, the first movement shows Brahms’s style at its boldest. The tense opening theme, with its pulsating accompaniment on viola and cello, is followed immediately by a more lyrical idea that modulates remarkably widely for so early in the piece. (This was a passage much admired by Schoenberg, who cited it in an essay entitled ‘Brahms the Progressive’.) No less striking is the manner in which Brahms treats the start of the recapitulation, much later in the movement, allowing the main theme to enter before the home key has been re-established. The seamless join is one that effectively prolongs the tension of the preceding development section.

The horn-call that inaugurates the slow movement is woven into the accompaniment of the warmly expressive main theme itself. The theme is handed over from violin to cello for a counterstatement, as though it were to form the basis of a set of variations; but there is no such quasi-repeat for the melody’s second half, which instead gives way to the halting phrases of a more pleading middle section. When the original melody returns it does so in an elaborately ornamented form, as if to confirm the variation background of the movement’s beginning.

If the ‘panting’ phrases that set the F minor third movement in motion offer a distant memory of the finale from Beethoven’s quartet in the same key Op 95, its second theme—a mellifluous, ‘swaying’ duet for viola and first violin—is as thoroughly Brahmsian as could be imagined. The trio section in the major has its theme accompanied by a curious ‘croaking’ sound from the second violin. The effect is produced by rapidly alternating the same pitch between adjacent ‘open’ and ‘stopped’ strings—an idea Brahms will have learned not from Beethoven, but from Haydn, whose quartets he deeply admired. Haydn’s most famous example of this bariolage technique, as it is called, occurs in the finale of his D major Quartet Op 50 No 6, where its use has lent the work as a whole the nickname of the ‘Frog’.

Having hesitated so long over his first two string quartets, Brahms managed to produce their successor without any protracted birth-pangs, and the fact that the new work was again dedicated to a well known physician prompted him to elaborate on the medical analogy. ‘I am’, he told Theodor Wilhelm Engelmann (the husband of the pianist Emma Brandes, and himself a keen amateur cellist) ‘publishing a string quartet, and may need a doctor for it (as with the first ones). This quartet rather resembles your wife—very dainty, but brilliant! … It’s no longer a question of a forceps delivery; but of simply standing by. There’s no cello solo in it, but such a tender viola solo that you may want to change your instrument for its sake!’

The new quartet was tried out by the Joachim Quartet at Clara Schumann’s house in Berlin before it was performed in public on 30 October 1876. Joachim wrote enthusiastically to Brahms: ‘Even you have scarcely written any more beautiful chamber music than in the D minor [third] movement and the finale—the former full of magical romanticism, the latter full of warmth and charm in an artistic form. But the original first movement and the concise, sweet-sounding Andante should not be overlooked, either!’

Brahms’s own simile of the Op 67 quartet as being as dainty as Frau Engelmann was apt: in marked contrast to its dramatic predecessors it is a work of considerable charm, and almost divertimento-like playfulness. In composing it Brahms may have had Mozart’s ‘Hunt’ Quartet K458 (also in B flat major) at the back of his mind—at any rate, it, too, begins with a ‘hunting’ theme in 6/8 time. On the other hand, the cross-rhythm that soon appears, dividing the bar into three slightly quicker beats in place of the prevailing two longer beats, is one of Brahms’s favourite gestures. The new rhythm anticipates the ingratiating second subject, with its ‘rocking’ figure, where there is an actual change of time signature, to 2/4. In the exposition’s closing bars, Brahms ingeniously manages to combine the two rhythms.

The slow movement has a theme of Mendelssohnian elegance and gracefulness, but there is also a more dramatic middle section that lends the proceedings symphonic tension. Brahms’s autograph score shows us that he initially conceived the piece in a straightforward form, with a conventional reprise in the home key. However, a last-minute change of heart led him not only to cast the concluding section as a variation of the opening melody, but also to launch it in the comparatively distant key of D major, allowing the music to regain the home key of F only shortly before the coda. Perhaps the unexpected switch in tonal direction was prompted by the second half of the initial melody itself, which touches momentarily on the chord of D major.

The third movement is the viola solo with which Brahms hoped to tempt Engelmann to change instruments; and in order to make its part stand out, the remaining three players use mutes throughout. As for the finale, it is a piece Brahms clearly remembered when he came to write his Clarinet Quintet in B minor. Like the last movement of that late work, it is cast in the form of a set of variations that gradually works its way around to reintroducing the theme of the opening movement. This, then, like the Clarinet Quintet, and like Brahms’s Third Symphony, is a work whose ending returns us, in circular fashion, to its starting-point.

The tiny variation theme itself has a harmonic twist in its tail: its first half cadences unexpectedly into D major, and the sound of B flat is reached again only in its final two bars. The first three variations stick closely to the theme’s harmonic outline, but the fourth turns to the tonic minor, and the fifth is in the closely related key of D flat major. Variation 6 moves into G flat major which means that the harmonic ‘twist’ now occurs on the home key of B flat. This, however, does not lessen the shock of the unceremonious plunge back into B flat for the following variation, where the tempo is doubled and the first movement’s theme reappears. (The implied tempo relationship between the outer movements would seem to dictate a decidedly quick speed for the first movement, if the variations are not to sound too sedate.) Nor is its initial theme the only material from the first movement to make a return at this point: the passage also recalls a mysterious moment in the minor that in the opening movement had heralded the arrival of the second subject. In the closing bars, the variation theme and the first movement’s ‘hunting’ subject are combined with deceptive ease, as though to highlight the hitherto hidden kinship between them.

Misha Donat © 2008

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