Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
CDS44331/42 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 1: Allegro non troppo
Movement 2: Andante moderato
Movement 3: Quasi menuetto, moderato – Allegro vivace
Movement 4: Allegro non assai
Whether or not Brahms was consciously aware of it, the theme of the slow movement is essentially an inverted form of the opening Allegro’s second subject. The sonority in which the theme is first heard is of a leanness that might have appealed to Haydn. It has the melody entrusted to the first violin, while viola and cello accompany with a smoothly flowing line moving in parallel octaves. Following this two-stranded texture, the full quartet sound emerges only gradually. For his contrasting middle section Brahms again takes a leaf out of Schubert’s book, and writes a dramatic, agitated passage in the minor. But the outburst is short-lived, before the emergence of a resigned, warmly lyrical theme in the major. It is this new theme that will later be used to bring the piece to a gentle conclusion—but not before Brahms has presented a full-scale reprise of the opening theme in the ‘wrong’ key of F major. The false reprise, if such it is, is perhaps Brahms’s compensation for the fact that all four of the quartet’s movements are in the same tonality of A.
For his third movement, Brahms makes a nostalgic return to the world of the eighteenth-century minuet. But this is no straightforward minuet, and in place of a trio it has a delicate scherzo-like passage in a quicker tempo. It is, then, a dual-purpose piece of a kind more often found in Brahms’s three-movement works, where the centrepiece can function as slow movement and scherzo rolled into one—as it does in the Violin Sonata in A major Op 100 and the String Quintet in F major Op 88. In the A minor String Quartet the integration between the two opposing types of material is particularly subtle: the scherzo-like passage is briefly interrupted by a return to the tempo of the minuet—once again in the ‘wrong’ key; but rather than invoke the minuet’s actual theme, the intervention is based on the melodic outline of the scherzo.
The finale derives much of its tension from a metrical conflict between theme and accompaniment. The main subject gives the impression of being largely in duple metre, while its emphatic chordal accompaniment is in a firm triple time. The phrases of the theme’s second half, moreover, divide the 3/4 bar into two equal halves of one-and-half beats, so that the accompaniment, remaining very much on the beat, sounds more dislocated than ever. The conflict is resolved towards the end of the piece, where the theme is transmuted into a gentle, albeit syncopated, waltz in the major. But in the end Brahms will have none of such whimsy, and the music turns back to the minor, and hurtles inexorably towards an accelerated conclusion.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2007