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8.554272 - BRAHMS, J.: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 11 (Matthies, Köhn)
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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Four Hand Piano Music Vol

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Four Hand Piano Music Vol. 11

String Quartet No. 3, Op. 67 • String Quintet No. 1, Op. 88

 

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double-bass player and his much older wife, a seamstress. His childhood was spent in relative poverty, and his early studies in music, for which he showed a natural aptitude, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk of touring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him a grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy helped his family by playing the piano in summer inns.

 

In 1851 Brahms met the émigré Hungarian violinist Reményi, who introduced him to Hungarian dance music that had a later influence on his work. Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour, their journey taking them, on the recommendation of the Hungarian violinist Joachim, to Weimar, where Franz Liszt held court and might have been expected to show particular favour to a fellow-countryman. Reményi profited from the visit, but Brahms, with a lack of tact that was later accentuated, failed to impress the Master. Later in the year, however, he met the Schumanns, through Joachim’s agency. The meeting was a fruitful one.

 

In 1850 Schumann had taken up the offer from the previous incumbent, Ferdinand Hiller, of the position of municipal director of music in Düsseldorf, the first official appointment of his career and the last. Now in the music of Brahms he detected a promise of greatness and published his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In the following year Schumann, who had long suffered from intermittent periods of intense depression, attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in 1856, were to be spent in an asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support of Schumann’s wife, the gifted pianist Clara Schumann, and her young family, remaining a firm friend until her death in 1896, shortly before his own in the following year.

 

Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would be able to return in triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg. This ambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, intermittently from 1863 and definitively in 1869, establishing himself there and seeming to many to fulfil Schumann’s early prophecy. In him his supporters, including, above all, the distinguished critic and writer Eduard Hanslick, saw a true successor to Beethoven and a champion of music untrammelled by extra-musical associations, of pure music, as opposed to the Music of the Future promoted by Wagner and Liszt, a path to which Joachim and Brahms both later publicly expressed their opposition.

 

Brahms made a significant contribution to chamber music repertoire. The first two of his three string quartets were completed in 1873. He worked on the last, the String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 67, during a summer holiday in 1875 spent at Ziegelhausen, near Heidelberg. It was published the following year, with a dedication to Professor Th. Wilhelm Engelmann, his host in Utrecht during a concert tour of Holland in January 1876.

 

The first movement of the quartet starts with a cheerful theme that soon allows the characteristic intrusion of cross-rhythms. The second subject, appearing after a transition in the minor, is a seemingly happy dance tune. After the repetition of the exposition these elements form the basis of the central development, with an increase in dramatic tension at its heart, and the subsequent recapitulation. The F major slow movement introduces a moving and extended melody, followed by a middle section that has moments of drama and changes of metre. The return of the principal theme is prefigured by a derivative of the melody. The D minor third movement, marked Agitato (Allegretto non troppo), is, in its original version, for muted strings except for the viola, and makes varied use of pizzicato. The theme is, therefore, at first in a middle voice. The A minor trio section offers a brief change of mood, before the return of the first part of the movement and a short D major coda. The quartet ends with a simple theme and eight variations. The first of these, originally for the viola, is in the tenor register, as is the opening of the second. The third variation brings triplet figuration, the fourth a widely spaced opening, the fifth a shift to D flat major, and the sixth a gentle treatment of the theme in G flat major, marked molto dolce. The seventh variation, in double speed and 6/8, remembers the main theme of the first movement, while the final variation recalls, in B flat minor, the transitional material of the first movement. The coda combines elements of the first movement, as recalled in the seventh variation, and the theme of the finale itself.

 

Brahms scored his two string quintets for two violins, two violas, and cello, as Mozart had done, after an earlier attempt at the form scored for two cellos, which he destroyed in favour of a version for two pianos, later transformed into the Piano Quintet in F minor. The String Quintet No. 1 in F major, Op. 88, was written in 1882 during a holiday at the resort of Bad Ischl and was first performed in December of the same year at Frankfurt am Main. The first movement starts with a pleasing and regular first subject. A transition with dotted rhythms leads to a second subject in A major, with hints of other keys realised in the central development, after the repeated exposition. There is much use of pedal-point, perhaps less apparent in a piano version, before the return of the first subject in a varied recapitulation. The slow movement contains its own scherzo, a practice Brahms followed elsewhere in his chamber music. The movement is in C sharp minor, suggesting at first the major mode, the theme drawn from an 1855 Sarabande. The cheerfully dancing A major Allegretto vivace appears in contrast, gently leading to the return of the more sombre opening, with marked cross-rhythms. An A major Presto, a variant of the Allegretto vivace but in fact also derived from a Gavotte of 1855, is followed by the return once more of the opening material, at first in A major, then in C sharp minor, but slowly modulating through autumnal shades to end in a hushed A major once more. The fugal finale has an extended subject, in the manner of Beethoven’s third Razumovsky Quartet, of which Brahms had once made a piano transcription. This is worked out with great technical skill, introducing a secondary thematic element in A major and a D minor development, the whole ending in a Presto.

              

In the keyboard transcriptions of these works Brahms followed his normal practice. Versions of this kind opened possibilities of another kind, at least for private performance, in days before modern recording, when many of us made our first acquaintance with wider repertoire in this form. At the same time the four-hand arrangements of the string quartets and quintets cast a new light on the form in which these works were originally conceived.

 

Keith Anderson


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