Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
CDS44331/42 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 1: Allegro non troppo ma con brio
Movement 2: Grave ed appassionato – Allegretto vivace – Tempo I – Presto – Tempo I
Movement 3: Allegro energico – Presto
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 Second Violin Sonata 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) 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–Csharp–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.
from notes by Francis Pott © 1995