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String Quintet No 2 in G major, Op 111
1890; Bad Ischl

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Movement 1: Allegro non troppo ma con brio
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Movement 2: Adagio
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Movement 3: Un poco allegretto
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Movement 4: Vivace ma non troppo presto – Animato
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String Quintet No 2 in G major, Op 111
If the first Quintet’s finale took Brahms back to the Academic Festival Overture, the second perhaps reminded him where its generic predecessor had left off. The mood has now shifted towards a greater rhetorical elevation but maintains the previous level of sweeping optimism. The opening theme for the cello has been frequently cited as a searching test of the player’s control and projection, coming as it does from the depths and fighting to be heard against a dauntingly powerful backdrop of oscillating chords. Joachim persuaded the composer to revise these in favour of something more circumspect, but Brahms eventually decided to stand by his original idea which survives in the published score.

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.

from notes by Francis Pott © 1995

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