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8.554412 - BRAHMS, J.: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 12 (Matthies, Köhn)
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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Four Hand Piano Music Vol. 12
String Quintet No. 2 • Piano Quartet No. 1

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.

Like Mozart’s, the two string quintets of Brahms are scored for two violins, two violas and cello. The choice is characteristic. The register of the violas and the richness of texture that such an instrumentation can impart, whether in chamber music or in orchestral writing, was very typical of Brahms, and reflected in his music for the piano. He had first attempted the form in 1862, using two cellos, as Schubert had done, but had destroyed it, replacing it first with an arrangement for two pianos, and later, in a final version, as a piano quintet. Brahms had intended his String Quintet in G major, Op. 111, as his last chamber music composition. He wrote it in the summer of 1890 at Bad Ischl, following his usual custom of composing during summer holidays spent away from the city. It was, in the event, to be followed by four further compositions, the Clarinet Trio, the Clarinet Quintet, and two Clarinet Sonatas, the last also known in an effectively autumnal version for viola, an instrument offered in the other works as an alternative to the clarinet. The G major Quintet was first performed in Vienna on 11th November in the year of its composition. It starts with a movement derived from sketches for a fifth symphony, allowing the cello an orchestrally conceived first subject. For the second subject Brahms turns to Vienna for inspiration. There is a shift to B flat major in the central development, further modulation leading to the return of the original key and thematic material in recapitulation. The D minor slow movement allows free variations on the opening material, until the theme returns in a simpler form, originally played by the first viola. The third movement opens in a melancholy G minor, the feeling dispelled by a G major trio section, which has the last word, after the re-appearance of the G minor material. The quintet ends with a Vivace ma non troppo presto, a rondo that finds a place for much else that is thoroughly Austrian or Austro-Hungarian in mood, ending in an energetic Hungarian czárdás.

Clara Schumann appeared as the pianist in the first performance of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, given in Hamburg in November 1861, on the occasion of the third of a series of Hamburg concerts that featured the ladies’ choir, the Hamburger Frauenchor, informally established in 1859 and conducted by Brahms. In the summer of 1861 he had moved from his parents’ house, where marital disagreements made life uncongenial, to lodge with friends from the Frauenchor, where he enjoyed greater tranquillity. The new piano quartet was not his first attempt at the genre. There had been an earlier piano quartet, later transposed, revised and published in 1875 as Opus 60. The G minor Quartet had been some years in gestation and there seemed something orchestral about the conception. Brahms himself saw possible problems of balance between the demanding piano part and the strings, and made an arrangement for two pianos that would avoid these. In 1937 Schoenberg, aware of the same possible problem, successfully rescored the work for orchestra.

Brahms himself performed the quartet with members of the Hellmesberger Quartet on his first concert appearance in Vienna in 1862. The critic Hanslick was at first less impressed by the work, while he found Brahms’s playing more that of a composer than a virtuoso, a judgement not entirely to the latter’s discredit. The themes of the quartet he found, though, insignificant, dry and prosaic, nevertheless suggesting that, as always with Brahms, further study of the work would reveal its many virtues. Its first subject is derived from a simple motif, of contrapuntal suggestion, and this forms the basis of the relatively short central development. The second movement, at first with the title of Scherzo, is a C minor Intermezzo, with a more ebullient A flat major trio section. The Andante con moto moves into E flat major, its song-like progress interrupted by a central C major section, suggesting a march, although still in triple metre. The work ends with a Hungarian rondo, particularly effective in the twopiano version, Hungary seen through the prism of Vienna, an abiding memory of the composer’s early association with the Hungarian émigré violinist Ede Reményi, with whom he had, in 1853, embarked on his first concert tour, and of his own Hungarian Dances.

Keith Anderson

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