Hyperion Records

Piano Quartet No 2 in A major, Op 26
composer
first performed November 1862

Recordings
'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)  
Details
Movement 1: Allegro non troppo
Track 1 on CDA67471/2 CD2 [16'25] 2CDs
Track 1 on CDS44331/42 CD6 [16'25] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 2: Poco adagio
Track 2 on CDA67471/2 CD2 [12'28] 2CDs
Track 2 on CDS44331/42 CD6 [12'28] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 3: Scherzo: Poco allegro – Trio
Track 3 on CDA67471/2 CD2 [11'04] 2CDs
Track 3 on CDS44331/42 CD6 [11'04] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro
Track 4 on CDA67471/2 CD2 [10'10] 2CDs
Track 4 on CDS44331/42 CD6 [10'10] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)

Piano Quartet No 2 in A major, Op 26
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The G minor Quartet was premiered in Hamburg in November 1861, with Clara Schumann at the piano and an ensemble including the distinguished Hamburg violinist John Boie. Exactly a year later, in November 1862, Brahms himself was the pianist in the premiere of the new Piano Quartet in A major Op 26, the performance taking place in Vienna with members of Joseph Hellmesberger’s Quartet. During his lifetime this was the more often performed of the two, but in the twentieth century the dramatic and fiery G minor Quartet tended to eclipse it; the A major Quartet is now one of Brahms’s more neglected major works. Certainly it is less obviously ‘exciting’ than the G minor—it is an altogether more poised and lyrical conception, laid out on an even broader, more symphonic scale. Three of its four movements are cast in sonata form, and their ‘heavenly length’ and extended melodic ideas testify to his study of the music of Schubert. Yet this superb work’s melodic richness is only one of its strengths; and the gypsy energy of the G minor, though no longer directed to merely picturesque ends, is still to be felt.

The first movement, one of Brahms’s largest and yet most serene sonata designs, opens with a theme presented in two rhythmically distinct halves (triplets in the piano, followed by more flowing quavers in the cello). These two ideas are apt for separate development, yet in combination they achieve a statuesque balance of force, and this double theme easily dominates the movement despite a rich cast of subsidiary melodies and figures; it has the last word, just as it had the first.

The slow movement is one of the most glorious Brahms ever conceived, a large but subtle ternary form articulating what Joachim called its ‘ambiguous passion’. The piano’s tranquil, song-like opening theme, and its gypsy-style cadential turn, are developed at length in ever-more floridly decorated statements. The piano is mysteriously shadowed by the strings, which Brahms keeps muted until the return of the main section: this throws the piano, with its desolate ‘Aeolian harp’ flourishes and ardent second theme, into unusual relief. There are anticipations here of the slow movement of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 2, twenty years in the future. The muted sonorities return in the coda, hushing the openness of Brahms’s lyricism.

At first, the easily flowing crotchet motion of the next movement seems too mild for a scherzo, too plain for a character-intermezzo like the analogous movement in the G minor Quartet. Yet it proves apt for an inexorable build-up of immense melodic spans. A more animated rhythmic interest appears only with the transition passage that leads to the second subject. The central trio is based on a variant of this transition theme, now turned fiery and Hungarian but treated with ruthless discipline as a strict canon between piano and strings.

The last movement is not a rondo but another fully worked sonata design; its first subject, nevertheless, has plenty of the capricious Hungarian colouring we associated with the alla Zingarese finale of the G minor Quartet. Here, however, the exotic flavour and idiosyncratic rhythms are subordinated to an ample, unhurried overall form whose length proceeds, Schubert-like, from the sheer size of the melodic paragraphs involved. The Olympian mood of relaxed strength satisfyingly rounds off a work whose perfect mastery is all the more remarkable for being so consistently understated.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2006

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