Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)CDS44331/42
Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Romanze: Poco adagio
Movement 3: Allegretto molto moderato e comodo – Un poco più animato
Movement 4: Allegro
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’.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2008