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Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor, Op 60
1873/4; reworking of discarded Quartet in C sharp minor from 1854/5

'Brahms: Piano Quartets' (CDA67471/2)
Brahms: Piano Quartets
Buy by post £20.00 CDA67471/2  2CDs  
'Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music' (CDS44331/42)
Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
Buy by post £40.00 CDS44331/42  12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)  
Movement 1: Allegro non troppo
Track 5 on CDA67471/2 CD1 [10'56] 2CDs
Track 5 on CDS44331/42 CD5 [10'56] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro
Track 6 on CDA67471/2 CD1 [4'12] 2CDs
Track 6 on CDS44331/42 CD5 [4'12] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 3: Andante
Track 7 on CDA67471/2 CD1 [9'21] 2CDs
Track 7 on CDS44331/42 CD5 [9'21] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro comodo
Track 8 on CDA67471/2 CD1 [10'24] 2CDs
Track 8 on CDS44331/42 CD5 [10'24] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)

Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor, Op 60
For long, the unfinished C sharp minor Piano Quartet remained in the composer’s drawer. In the late 1860s Brahms showed it to his first biographer, Hermann Dieters, with the words: ‘Imagine a man who is just going to shoot himself, for there is nothing else to do.’ In 1873–4, however, Brahms took up the work afresh and radically revised it, the tonality dropping by a semitone, as the Piano Quartet in C minor Op 60. It is believed that Brahms recomposed the original finale to make it the scherzo; a new finale replaced it, and almost certainly the Andante is also new. Speaking about the end result to his publisher Simrock, Brahms still used the image of a man contemplating suicide, saying the cover should show a picture of a head with a pistol to it; and he hinted in various ways, both to Simrock and other friends, that the Quartet could be taken as a musical illustration of Goethe’s novel Werther (whose protagonist does indeed shoot himself because of his anguish over a married woman whose husband he admires: the parallel with Brahms’s situation with regard to the Schumanns is obvious). Even now he delayed for nearly a year before making the work public: the premiere finally took place in Vienna on 18 November 1875, with Brahms at the piano, Joseph Hellmesberger on violin, and the famous virtuoso David Popper on cello.

The first movement’s opening pitches us into a whirlpool of Romantic tribulation. The strings gasp out a two-note phrase that seems to speak the name ‘Clara’, and immediately unwinds a transposed version of Schumann’s personal ‘Clara-motif’. This is repeated in a different key before a stormy transition moves to a lyrical, Schubertian second subject whose self-contained melody immediately gives rise to a little group of four variations. The development is wrathfully strenuous; and in the recapitulation the group of variations is extended to project the music into a bitter, strife-torn coda that finally subsides as if exhausted.

The scherzo, in C minor, is a splendid movement in Brahms’s early vein of rhythmic dynamism. The tense, muttering figure of the opening dominates the proceedings. A plaintive, chant-like second theme is the only element with pathos enough to interrupt the powerful rhythmic drive. Unusually, there is no central trio section (a feature that supports the idea this was originally a finale); the movement is through-composed, building to an abrupt ending full of vehement defiance.

The song-like cello theme that begins the E major Andante, continued in a rapt duet with violin, brings emotional assuagement and calm. Here is the still centre of the work, encompassed in a broad sonata form with a dolce second subject in B major. The start of the recapitulation, with the cello melody now in octaves on the piano, accompanied by guitar-like pizzicati from the cello and viola, is wonderfully evocative.

A mood of anxiety and regret pervades the opening of the finale, a long violin solo against a relentless moto perpetuo quaver accompaniment. The quavers are augmented to form an irascible transition theme, and the second subject turns out to be an odd, quasi-religious chorale for the strings, with flippant (or perhaps cynical) rejoinders from the piano. There is a spectral air to the development, which brings about the intensified recapitulation, the piano eventually hammering out the chorale idea in a choleric C major. Then the movement gradually liquidates itself with a sense of exhaustion. The curt final cadence (Werther pulling the trigger?) indicates that the mood of unsatisfied fatalism has triumphed.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2006

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Details for CDA67471/2 disc 1 track 5
Allegro non troppo
Recording date
20 July 2005
Recording venue
Wathen Hall, St Paul's School, Barnes, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Brahms: Piano Quartets (CDA67471/2)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: November 2006
  2. Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music (CDS44331/42)
    Disc 5 Track 5
    Release date: October 2008
    12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
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