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8.571320 - BRAHMS, J.: Piano Quintet in F Minor (Idil Biret Archive Edition, Vol. 18)

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34


The son of a Hamburg double-bass player and his older seamstress wife, Johannes Brahms had developed his musical gifts with paternal encouragement but in relatively restricted circumstances. His ambition long remained to return home to Hamburg in triumph, but in the event his career was later to centre on Vienna, where he made his home from 1869 until his death. In the summer of 1853, however, he was able to embark on his first concert tour, with the émigré Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi. The journey took the two men to Weimar, where Liszt presided, a meeting that was of greater assistance to Reményi, Liszt’s fellow-countryman. More important, however, was the meeting that the young violinist Joseph Joachim was able to arrange with the Schumanns in Düsseldorf, where Robert and Clara had settled in 1850, he as director of music there, in succession to Ferdinand Hiller. Brahms made a deep impression and Schumann wrote an article for the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, in the highest praise, heralding him as the long-awaited successor to Beethoven, who had died in Vienna 26 years before. Brahms valued highly Schumann’s encouragement and an enthusiasm that might have been embarrassing in its suggestion of what might be to come. In 1854 Schumann, always subject to intermittent bouts of depression, tried to commit suicide and was thereafter confined to a private asylum at Endenich, separated from his wife, whose visits were discouraged. Schumann died in 1856 and Brahms was of considerable practical help to Clara Schumann and her young family, with a relationship that continued until her death in 1896, by which time Brahms had been established for some thirty years in Vienna. There his supporters, following Schumann’s early prophecy, found in him a successor to Beethoven, whose mantle Wagner had been so eager to appropriate.

Brahms was himself a pianist, although in his later years friends praised his musicianship more than his technical accuracy. His Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, originated as a string quintet in 1862, scored, like Schubert’s great quintet, for two cellos. Joachim suggested that the weight of the composition prompted the advisability of using the piano, and it was then recast as a sonata for two pianos and played in this form by the composer and Carl Tausig in 1864. The work owes its third transformation as a piano quintet to the intervention of Clara Schumann. The genre of the piano quintet has its apogee in the work of Schumann, whose work was to provide a model for later composers, with Brahms to be followed by Dvořák and César Franck. Schumann’s work had had its first public performance in Leipzig in 1843, with Clara Schumann, for whom it had been written, as pianist, although, through indisposition, she had been replaced by Mendelssohn at the first private performance of the work. It remained part of Clara Schumann’s repertoire.

Brahms, familiar with Schumann’s work, completed his Piano Quintet in the autumn of 1864 and published it the following year with a dedication to Princess Anna of Hesse. The first movement opens with the restrained announcement of the first subject by first violin, cello and piano, before an explosion of energy and the statement of the theme in fuller splendour, leading to a second subject largely in the unusual key of C sharp minor. The re-appearance of the first theme, entrusted to the first violin, marks the beginning of the central development, and, less directly, the recapitulation, with its second subject now in F sharp minor. The slow movement, in A flat major, breathes an air of calm serenity and is followed by a Scherzo that starts with the hushed plucked bottom note of the cello, an accompaniment to the syncopated theme that leads from A flat to C minor, before a cheerful and robust outburst in C major, and the later contrast of a C major Trio. The Finale has a subdued introduction, the ascending octave of the cello answered by the first violin, piano, viola and second violin in turn. The cello is given the opening theme of the Allegro that follows, breaking the suspense of what had gone before, with a second subject appearing in the first violin, marked un pochettino più animato and proceeding to a passage that combines great energy with rhythmic and contrapuntal subtlety. The movement, which lacks an orthodox central development, ends in a coda, marked Presto, non troppo, that serves to emphasise still more the underlying thematic and harmonic unity of the work.

Keith Anderson

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