Allegro non troppo ma con brio [10'44]
Allegro energico – Presto [5'03]
Allegro non troppo ma con brio [12'48]
Un poco allegretto [5'43]
‘It was in the G major string quintet … that the Takács players again hit special heights, achieving near-miracles of balance and interplay and with Geraldine Walther and guest Lawrence Power delivering a masterclass of contrasting but complementary viola playing’ (The Guardian)
The Takács Quartet have been recently described as ‘one of the world’s most distinguished ensembles’. Here they collaborate with Britain’s greatest living viola player, Lawrence Power, who with his long association with The Nash Ensemble among others has also proved himself a remarkable chamber musician.
Brahms’s String Quintets (Opp 88 and 111) both represent landmarks of the Romantic chamber music repertoire, and demonstrate the composer’s utter mastery of the genre.
‘He didn’t outlive himself’, wrote Edvard Grieg in the course of a letter to his fellow composer Julius Röntgen on the day of Brahms’s death. Ignoring for a moment the sorry decline of Brahms’s reputation in the early twentieth century, we should recognize in Grieg’s ostensibly peculiar remark a conscious and significant tribute from a staunch admirer; for there were, even then, plentiful reasons why Brahms seemed to defy the course of musical history by his survival, regardless of intrinsic merit.
As H C Colles pointed out in The Chamber Music of Brahms (Oxford University Press, 1933), barely any of Brahms’s great contemporaries espoused chamber composition to any noteworthy extent. The shining exception was his friend Antonín Dvorák; and Dvorák’s early path, at least, had been dominated by the impact of Wagner despite a decade of self-administered study and apprentice effort along Classical and Schubertian lines. Brahms, however, seems always to have known that a Classical orientation would set him permanently apart from the inimical tendencies of the Lisztian symphonic poem and of Wagnerian opera, as well as of all that these brought in their wake.
If the results of Brahms’s forays into sextet- and quartet-writing be accepted as both mixed and, in differing ways, a little odd, then a certain inevitability may seem to attend his eventual selection of the medium in between. In fact, however, Op 88 was not his first attempt at a string quintet. In 1862 he had composed such a work in the key of F minor, augmenting the string quartet unit with a second cello as in the great C major Quintet by Schubert. At the suggestion of the violinist Joachim he drastically revised this, whereupon it saw the light of day again as a sonata for two pianos which Brahms performed in 1864 with his friend, the great Liszt pupil and virtuoso, Carl Tausig. Seeing this as only a provisional draft, Clara Schumann then persuaded the long-suffering composer to recast the music again. In due course it emerged as the Op 34 Piano Quintet, perhaps his ‘archetypal masterpiece of the 1860s’ (Malcolm MacDonald, Brahms, London, 1990). This prolonged episode illustrates Brahms’s notorious difficulty in establishing the ideal medium for his creative ideas; similarly the Piano Concerto No 1 owes its symphonic characteristics to the fact that a symphony was indeed what the composer initially planned.
Whatever one thinks of the seemingly frequent intervention of others, the Op 34 Piano Quintet is one of its composer’s supreme achievements (though he remained proud of the two-piano version, which survives). When he returned to the string quintet medium he appears to have had no doubts as to the music’s identity, and the F major Quintet, like its successor in G, displays a mastery notably superior to that found in the string quartets.
String Quintet No 1 in F major Op 88 (1882)
The F major Quintet begins without preamble, presenting a theme whose sober dress is reminiscent of the early B flat Sextet’s initial atmosphere. A rapid expansion of texture generates an opulent restatement followed by vehement dotted rhythms. The second subject, in the less than obvious key of A major, is a lilting triplet melody proposed by the first viola and taken up by the first violin against ‘pizzicato’ figuration from violas and cello. The development continues to explore sharp key areas, the vehicle for this being much characteristic use of simultaneous quavers and quaver triplets, at times seamlessly indivisible, at others confrontational and enhanced by syncopation (displaced accents straddling the main beat). In due course the recapitulation is heralded by inchoate attempts at the first subject which twice fail to find their prescribed direction before further use of the dotted figure inspires greater purpose and a climactic restatement of the entire theme is launched. It is symptomatic of Brahms’s conception of development as a relatively contiguous section of sonata structure, and of his Classical stance in treating it as a vehicle for tonal expansion via fairly ‘straight’ repetition of loosely derived material, that the quaver triplets initiated in this development section make no further appearance in the movement. In the recapitulation the second subject appears in D, making a predictable shift back to the tonic key of F at its half-way point. The sudden access of energy in the coda’s concluding bars seems a conscious token gesture after a deliberately measured and ‘low-key’ movement (later to be appreciated as the shrewdly conceived foil to a notably boisterous finale).
The second movement presents a relatively rare example in Brahms of synthesis of the characteristics of two movements by means of alternation. A comparable instance occurs in the Violin Sonata No 2 in A, Op 100; but whereas that movement’s slow music epitomizes the quasi-narrative manner of the late solo piano works (Opp 116–119; in particular the Romanze, Op 118 No 5), the Grave ed appassionato of Op 88 articulates a profoundly melancholy introspection. Taking the unlikely key signature of C sharp minor in response to the A major tonality of the preceding movement’s second subject and to the D flat repetitions announcing its recapitulation, the Grave at once perplexes the issue by starting apparently in C sharp major and then casting doubt as to whether this is the tonic or dominant key. C sharp minor tonality establishes itself only in bar five and even thereafter the music remains perpetually transitional in feeling. Despite an exceptionally slow pulse (reminiscent of such late Beethovenian conceptions as the Adagio of that composer’s last cello sonata, Op 102 No 2) there is a perceptible gravitational pull towards the second beat of each 34 bar, achieved by the placing of longer notes in mid-bar after the fashion of an excessively funereal sarabande. The austere and attenuated end of this section seems to threaten black misanthropy and gives no clue as to what will follow.
The ensuing Allegretto vivace section dispels gloom without providing explanations. Its lilting rhythms and gentle pastoral character seem to hint momentarily at what the young Carl Nielsen may have taken from Brahms. A return to the opening manner and matter merely intensifies the mystery, although one can appreciate that the displaced accentuations of the Allegretto’s compound time-signature and those of the Grave have been subtly induced to provide an underlying rhythmic kinship between seemingly irreconcilable material. A Presto follows, this being a through-composed variation of the Allegretto. These two sections having been in A major, the concluding Grave adopts that key in which to restate the opening material with its attendant ambiguities intact. A strikingly remote and somehow nerveless peroration sows confusion as to the ultimate tonal destination. After wavering between C sharp major and A major the music conclusively reaches the latter via the unexpected intervention of D minor. In this ostensibly eccentric tonal scheme one can by now detect the possible guiding hand of Schubert: the progression F–A–C sharp–F encompassed by the Quintet’s three movements exploits a rotational principle based upon the augmented triad, just as Schubert does to strikingly cohesive and original effect in his ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy for solo piano of 1822. One need look no further than the opening of Brahms’s own first Piano Sonata, Op 1, to see the impact of the ‘Wanderer’ upon him in specifically pianistic and thematic terms.
The Quintet’s finale opens with two peremptory chords whose tonic/dominant relationship is perhaps calculated to restore diatonic order within the re-established principal key. These launch a fugal subject of headlong rhythmic energy, stated by the first viola. The character here is strongly reminiscent of the finale in Beethoven’s third ‘Razumovsky’ String Quartet, Op 59 No 3, of which Philip Radcliffe wrote: ‘The fugal element plays an important part in the movement, but it is the powerful rhythmic drive and the broad harmonic outline behind the counterpoint that gives the music its peculiar exhilaration … and the result, judged on its own merits, is irresistible’ (Beethoven’s String Quartets, Cambridge, 1965). He could have said the same of Brahms’s Op 88 finale with equal justice.
Each of Brahms’s subsequent fugal entries is ‘detonated’ by a further pair of emphatic chords, these responding to the dictates of a fugal alternation of tonic and dominant entries by themselves changing the order of their appearance. The sheer kinetic effect of this, though rooted in Beethoven, might well remind a modern listener of Robert Simpson, both through its dynamic force and because of its concern with moment-by-moment organic ‘mechanism’ or process as much as with outward form.
After four fugal entries (the last shared by cello and second viola in octaves) a boisterous theme is declaimed by all five players. The free use of octave doubling (particularly in compound form between the outer parts), the continued insistence on tonic and dominant, and the ‘ostinato’ rhythm create a somehow vernacular effect reminiscent of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture. Possibly Ischl reminded the composer too of that work, which he had composed there in 1880 during his only previous visit.
The rest of the finale requires little comment, so eloquently and joyously does it speak for itself. The riotous coda is a marvel of rhythmic mischief, the skill of which may be gauged only by comparing the aural effect with the printed score. The latter shows that the actual rhythm is extremely simple; but the unrelenting ostinato rhythm leading up to this has rendered the ear almost unable to accept previously unaccented pitches as newly accented ones, and vice versa, with the devilishly ingenious result that innocent symmetry communicates momentarily as riotous dislocation. There are few, if any, more capriciously exciting moments in Brahms’s output, and few works which more perfectly match forces to substance. The lessons of Op 51 have been triumphantly absorbed.
String Quintet No 2 in G major Op 111 (1890)
The first subject’s soaring theme generates a fine paragraph of densely scored lyricism before secondary material arrives in the form of a discourse between paired violas and the remaining instruments. The extension of this theme embodies much conscious undermining or displacement of normal accentuation, often exacerbating the effect through cadence formations whose timing produces artificial stresses on otherwise ‘weak’ beats. This habitual tendency in Brahms might be seen as arising consciously or unconsciously from choral mastery: his study of Palestrina’s (un-barred) imitative polyphony, and his own consequent flexibility in subordinating metrical rhythm to patterns of syllabic stress where appropriate, may well be the source of the richly varied accentuation and harmonic rhythms of his instrumental music.
The Allegro’s development section thrives upon the polyphonic possibilities of the medium, beginning quietly in B flat but generating an unusually intensive exploration of the first subject’s implications. As indicated before, this is something which ceases to work with adequate balance and suppleness in the majority of Brahms’s chamber works with piano, and which does not arise in the comparatively stiff and strenuous context of the three string quartets. The same felicitous touch animates a spacious recapitulation and a coda which enables the respective instruments to meditate upon past thematic material as both soloists and ensemble members, much as in an operatic set-piece (though here any operatic connection ends). A gradual withdrawal into self-communing stillness is followed by two brusque final chords.
The Adagio (in D minor) opens with two bars whose rhythmic and tonal similarity to the Adagio e lento in Mendelssohn’s Op 87 Quintet may well be significant. The two movements are comparable in general rhythmic terms throughout, as well as in overall length. Moreover, it is Mendelssohn who comes to mind as the emotional and aesthetic model for the ‘careless rapture’ of Brahms’s first movement. The memorable melodic arch opening the earlier composer’s Octet might seem to support this, though Mendelssohn stands poles apart from Brahms in terms of variety of metre and accentuation, often becoming entrapped in his own form of ‘fearful symmetry’ from which fugal habit provides the sole relief and escape.
The third movement, Un poco allegretto, is in effect an intermezzo, again resembling its Mendelssohnian counterpart with which it shares the key of G minor (as does Mozart’s Quintet K516). However, the principal theme seems loosely to echo that which opens Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony. Its characteristic falling semitone acquires a progressively abstracted and sorrowful mien, particularly upon its return after the central G major episode’s gently unexpected modulations. The curiously indivisible mixture of the idyllic and the melancholy has more than a little in common with Dvorák, Brahms’s younger friend and colleague who by this date was more than capable of reciprocating an influence.
The final rondo starts modestly in the ‘wrong’ key of B minor. Its mood is ambivalent and embraces several curious moments of whimsy of a folk-derived nature. Again kinship with Dvorák may be discerned in the gentle ‘humoreske’ style of the opening and in its suddenly forthright sequel which establishes the tonic key. A secondary subject in triplets reinforces the note of rustic simplicity but the central passage generates an unexpectedly single-minded exploration of the first subject, again in a fashion which would have been impracticable for Brahms in most other chamber media. Upon its re-emergence the complete subject seems to have shed something of its innocence, but after a brief recapitulation of the second subject in the tonic key the principal material proves capable of further regeneration. The spirited ‘coda’ increasingly assumes the character of a Dvorák ‘polka’ or ‘galop’ such as one finds in the ‘Dumky’ Trio, Op 90.
If Dvorák could teach Brahms one thing, this might have been how to wear the academic aspects of his craft lightly—and it is pre-eminently in the String Quintets that we find this occurring, along with a polyphonic and lyrical suppleness directly consequent upon the absence of the piano. In these works convention is exploited knowingly to new ends. The weight of quasi-orchestral, keyboard-dominated textures yields to an ease of utterance at odds with the narrowly preconceived Brahms whom we can too readily imagine without hearing this music.
‘How different the person we call Brahms now suddenly appears to us!’, continued Grieg in his letter to Röntgen. ‘Now for the first time I see and feel how whole he was both as an artist and as a human being … How glad I am to have been so fortunate as to have known him.’
Francis Pott © 1995