Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)CDS44331/42
Movement 1: Vivace
Movement 2: Andante
Movement 3: Agitato, Allegretto non troppo
Movement 4: Poco allegretto con variazioni
The new quartet was tried out by the Joachim Quartet at Clara Schumann’s house in Berlin before it was performed in public on 30 October 1876. Joachim wrote enthusiastically to Brahms: ‘Even you have scarcely written any more beautiful chamber music than in the D minor [third] movement and the finale—the former full of magical romanticism, the latter full of warmth and charm in an artistic form. But the original first movement and the concise, sweet-sounding Andante should not be overlooked, either!’
Brahms’s own simile of the Op 67 quartet as being as dainty as Frau Engelmann was apt: in marked contrast to its dramatic predecessors it is a work of considerable charm, and almost divertimento-like playfulness. In composing it Brahms may have had Mozart’s ‘Hunt’ Quartet K458 (also in B flat major) at the back of his mind—at any rate, it, too, begins with a ‘hunting’ theme in 6/8 time. On the other hand, the cross-rhythm that soon appears, dividing the bar into three slightly quicker beats in place of the prevailing two longer beats, is one of Brahms’s favourite gestures. The new rhythm anticipates the ingratiating second subject, with its ‘rocking’ figure, where there is an actual change of time signature, to 2/4. In the exposition’s closing bars, Brahms ingeniously manages to combine the two rhythms.
The slow movement has a theme of Mendelssohnian elegance and gracefulness, but there is also a more dramatic middle section that lends the proceedings symphonic tension. Brahms’s autograph score shows us that he initially conceived the piece in a straightforward form, with a conventional reprise in the home key. However, a last-minute change of heart led him not only to cast the concluding section as a variation of the opening melody, but also to launch it in the comparatively distant key of D major, allowing the music to regain the home key of F only shortly before the coda. Perhaps the unexpected switch in tonal direction was prompted by the second half of the initial melody itself, which touches momentarily on the chord of D major.The third movement is the viola solo with which Brahms hoped to tempt Engelmann to change instruments; and in order to make its part stand out, the remaining three players use mutes throughout. As for the finale, it is a piece Brahms clearly remembered when he came to write his Clarinet Quintet in B minor. Like the last movement of that late work, it is cast in the form of a set of variations that gradually works its way around to reintroducing the theme of the opening movement. This, then, like the Clarinet Quintet, and like Brahms’s Third Symphony, is a work whose ending returns us, in circular fashion, to its starting-point.
The tiny variation theme itself has a harmonic twist in its tail: its first half cadences unexpectedly into D major, and the sound of B flat is reached again only in its final two bars. The first three variations stick closely to the theme’s harmonic outline, but the fourth turns to the tonic minor, and the fifth is in the closely related key of D flat major. Variation 6 moves into G flat major which means that the harmonic ‘twist’ now occurs on the home key of B flat. This, however, does not lessen the shock of the unceremonious plunge back into B flat for the following variation, where the tempo is doubled and the first movement’s theme reappears. (The implied tempo relationship between the outer movements would seem to dictate a decidedly quick speed for the first movement, if the variations are not to sound too sedate.) Nor is its initial theme the only material from the first movement to make a return at this point: the passage also recalls a mysterious moment in the minor that in the opening movement had heralded the arrival of the second subject. In the closing bars, the variation theme and the first movement’s ‘hunting’ subject are combined with deceptive ease, as though to highlight the hitherto hidden kinship between them.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2008