About this Recording
8.110307 - BRAHMS: Piano Quintet (1950) / DVORAK: Piano Quintet, Op. 8 (1953) (Curzon, Budapest Quartet)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904): Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81

Both of the masterpieces on this disc were products of revision, but whereas Johannes Brahms’s Quintet achieved its final air of spontaneity by grinding hard work, Antonín Dvořák’s was turned out in six weeks. Brahms conceived his piece in his native Hamburg in 1861-62 as a string quintet, opting for the model with two cellos favoured by Boccherini, Cherubini and Schubert rather than the Mozartian variety with two violas, but his friend Joseph Joachim, who led performances in Vienna and Hanover, persuaded him that it did not work in that form, and various attempts to reconstruct that version have confirmed Joachim’s diagnosis. Brahms reworked the Quintet as the Sonata for two pianos, which he and Carl Tausig first performed in Vienna on 17th April 1864, and that version can still be heard today. Another of Brahms’s friendly critics, Clara Schumann, stepped in, however, and told him that she felt strings should still be involved (she had read through the Sonata with the conductor Hermann Levi, who may well have been the person who suggested the final form of Op. 34). So Brahms turned to a fairly new model, the piano quintet. His hero Robert Schumann, Clara’s late husband, had produced his greatest masterpiece in that form, and more or less invented the piano quintet as we know it: the quintets of Boccherini were arrangements, while those by Hummel and Schubert incorporated a double bass. In its final transformation Brahms’s work achieved perfection at last, so that composers such as Dvořák, Franck, Fauré, Reger, Martucci, Elgar, Bloch, Reizenstein, Toch, Martinů and Shostakovich were inspired to follow suit.

The Piano Quintet has a brooding air of drama about it, reflecting Brahms’s troubled mental state in the early 1860s. His love for Clara Schumann was unrequited and to make matters worse, she depended on him as a friend. The work pays homage both to its original inspiration, Schubert’s C major String Quintet, and to Schumann’s Piano Quintet, with a few Beethovenian touches, and yet it is wholly Brahmsian in the cut of its melodies, the tension of its harmonies and the beauty of its polyphony. The piano part is typically Brahmsian, in that it requires the player to put his or her back into it at times, but there is no heaviness as such, just the usual large-scale Brahmsian virtuosity as the composer draws on the experience of his first two Piano Quartets in mixing piano with strings. Brahms’s extensive use of the minor second interval is one device that binds the piece together, while another is the generally disturbing undertow of the rhythmic scheme. There is no real slow movement, although the gentle Andante, with its questioning first theme, serves as one, and the finale has an extraordinary Poco sostenuto introduction which is the most introverted section of the work. The outer movements and the Scherzo are constructed on the most expansive scale, so that overall the Quintet seems ‘bigger’ than that of Schumann. It was published in 1865 and first performed in Leipzig on 22nd June 1866, and since then has been the most popular of Brahms’s chamber works.

Just as Brahms learnt from Schumann, so Dvořák learnt from Brahms, who was one of his early sponsors and even read his proofs for him on occasion. The Bohemian composer wrote a Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 5, in 1872 and it was first given in Prague that November, but he was not happy with it and destroyed the manuscript. Fortunately the organizer of the first performance kept his own copy, and so, when in 1887 Dvořák decided to revise the piece after all, he was able to do so. In its reworked form that early Quintet has had a fair number of performances and has been recorded by some of the top Czech musicians, but it remains an attractive piece of juvenilia. Its main function was to inspire Dvořák to write an entirely new quintet in the same key in that summer of 1887. This sort of fecundity was usual for Dvořák. When his First Symphony was lost (it did not turn up again until after his death), he promptly wrote another to replace it, and he composed an early opera twice because he was unsure about the first version.

He began the Piano Quintet, Op. 81, on 18th August 1887, at his country house in Vysoká, and finished it on 3rd October, and the whole piece breathes an atmosphere of delight and inspiration. It is surely no coincidence that Dvořák ’s own instrument, the viola, has some particularly lovely passages, especially in the first two movements. Dvořák was not a pianist like Brahms, and his piano writing in certain works has been criticized – the Piano Concerto is a case in point. In his music for piano and strings, however, he managed to write very well for the keyboard instrument, and no pianist has ever complained about the Quintet. The lovely cello melody heard at the start, after the piano has set the scene, provides the cue for a work full of lyrical outpourings. The second movement is in Dvořák’s favourite slow-fast dumka form and the Scherzo is a furiant (if rather a stylized one). The final rondo is a succession of happy ideas, guaranteed to send the audience out of the hall humming one or other of its tunes. Op. 81 was first performed in Prague on 6th January 1888 by the conductor Karel Kovařovic and an ad hoc quartet led by one of the famed Ondříček brothers, Karel.

These two great quintets had contrasting recording histories. The Brahms got off to a superb start with Harold Bauer and the Flonzaley Quartet, and other early performers on record included Rudolf Serkin and the Busch Quartet. Unfortunately the latter combination never recorded their famous interpretation of the Dvořák and there were some unidiomatic, mediocre efforts (by famous performers). The fine version by Jan Heřman and the Ondříček Quartet did not circulate in the English-speaking countries and so this version by Curzon and the Budapest Quartet was the first generally available recording to show the work’s possibilities.

The Budapest Quartet had a stormy history but maintained a high standard for half a century, 1917-67. Beginning as a group of three Hungarians and a Dutchman, it metamorphosed during its second decade (1927-36) into a Russian ensemble, and that line-up became established in the United States. Arising out of the Budapest Opera Orchestra, the quartet was founded on democratic lines, each man having a vote. It made its début in Kolozvar (Cluj-Napoca, Romania), in December 1917 and in 1920, after a change of second violin, moved to Berlin. It could soon offer some 65 works, including all the Beethoven quartets. On 12th January 1925 it made its London début at the Aeolian Hall. Another second violinist left in 1927, to be replaced by the first Russian, Joseph Roisman (1900- 74). In the spring of 1931, the Russian cellist Mischa Schneider (1903-85) joined the ensemble. The group made its New York début on 4th January 1931 but the following year the leader Emil Hauser left, to be replaced by Roisman, and Schneider’s younger brother Alexander (1908-93) became second violin. The Hungarian violist Istvan Ipolyi continued until 1936, when he was replaced by Boris Kroyt (1897-1969). The all-Russian formation won great success, emigrating to the United States, where it became resident at the Library of Congress, but the stability lasted only eight years before Alexander Schneider decided to leave. Replacements Edgar Ortenberg and Jac Gorodetzky were no match for him and in 1955, following the latter’s death, he returned for the last phase of the ensemble’s career.

The Budapest Quartet worked with many fine pianists, among them George Szell, Artur Balsam, Miecyzslaw Horszowski and Rudolf Serkin. A favourite was the Englishman Clifford Curzon (1907-82), who studied with Charles Reddie (a pupil of Stavenhagen) at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and later with the Leschetizky pupils Katharine Goodson and Artur Schnabel. After two years in Berlin with Schnabel, Curzon went to Paris, where Wanda Landowska and Nadia Boulanger influenced him. He made his United States début in 1939 and after the war was recognised as one of the great pianists. He was made CBE in 1958 and knighted in 1977.

These recordings were the first and last of four that Curzon and the Budapest Quartet made in 1950-53. In addition, live recordings of the quintets by Schumann (1951) and Franck (1956) and the E flat Quartet by Mozart are known. The Columbia tapes had to be made in the boxy acoustic of the Library of Congress concert hall, as a condition of using the Library’s Stradivari instruments. Furthermore, the Dvořák was made in fraught circumstances: in September 1952, while the quartet was on tour in Japan, the leader Roisman suffered a terrible fall, breaking his left wrist. Unwisely, he insisted on going to an American military hospital, where it was badly set, and he was out of action for months. The keen-eared will detect that his intonation, not his strongest point by the 1950s at the best of times, goes a little awry in places, but he and his colleagues had a good feeling for Dvořák and their essential warmth and vivacity, allied with Curzon’s sparkling pianism, win the day. In the Brahms Quintet, Curzon’s only official recording of this work, just as the Dvořák is the quartet’s only official document of that one, the five men make the most of the more ruminative moments. One of those very passages, however, the introduction to the finale, provoked one of their rare spats. The nervy Curzon, on edge as the string players tried and tried again to get their voicing exactly right, burst out querulously: ‘Why, any village violinist would know how to play a phrase like that’. To which Roisman replied, somewhat miffed: ‘I’m not from no village. Odessa is a big town.’ That the episode did no lasting damage is proved by the fact that they went on to give a number of other performances and make three more recordings

Tully Potter

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