About this Recording
8.572799 - BRAHMS, J.: Piano Quartet No. 2 / MAHLER, G.: Piano Quartet (Barakhovsky, Zemtsov, W.E. Schmidt, Nebolsin)

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897): Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911): Piano Quartet


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.

The autumn of 1857 had brought Brahms a court appointment at Detmold, teaching the piano and conducting. He was to return there for the next two years, while continuing to fulfil a series of concert engagements. In January 1860 he returned to Hamburg, living at first with his parents, but soon moving to a house owned by Elisabeth Rösing at the country suburb of Hamm, where the Hamburg Frauenchor that he had established and conducted often met. Here he enjoyed greater tranquillity, undisturbed by the marital disagreements of his parents within the limited accommodation available to them. Clara Schumann appeared as the pianist in the first performance of his 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 Hamburg ladies’ choir. 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 Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26, written during the same period, had its first performance in Vienna on 29th November 1862, with members of the Hellmesberger Quartet and with Brahms playing the piano part. The concert followed shortly after Brahms had received the disappointing news of the appointment of Julius Stockhausen as conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic, a position for which he had hoped. In a letter home from Vienna, however, he was able to report the sympathetic reception of his new piano quartet and his success with the audience as a pianist. Hanslick, who had followed Brahms’s career with close interest, still had reservations, but Clara Schumann preferred the quartet to its immediate predecessor. The work is of some length, and makes wide use of sonata form. The opening subject of the repeated exposition has two elements, a chordal theme and a winding thematic element first heard from the cello. The second subject that follows is replete with the composer’s habitual cross-rhythms. The central development unusually includes three variations of the first theme, before its return in recapitulation. The E major slow movement, Poco adagio, and scored at first with muted strings, offers a lyrical principal theme, the strings unmuted on its return, after the contrasting secondary material. The extended Scherzo, unusually in sonata form, has a D minor Trio that uses thematic material from the Scherzo in its canonic writing. The quartet ends with another sonata-form movement, its rhythmic first subject with touches of the Hungarian. It makes a splendid and complementary ending to a work that wears the unmistakable stamp of Brahms throughout.

Gustav Mahler not only continued and transformed the great Viennese symphonic tradition but, at the same time, added to the repertoire of Lieder, drawing on this tradition also in his symphonies. His achievement and his sense of the joys and sorrows of the world have found a ready audience in the years that followed his death, a period of unspeakable suffering for many.

Mahler expressed exactly enough his own position in the world of his time. He saw himself as three times homeless, a native of Bohemia in Austria, an Austrian among Germans and a Jew throughout the world. The second child of his parents and the first of fourteen to survive, he was born in the Bohemian town of Kalištĕ (Kalischt) in 1860. Soon after his birth the family moved to Jihlava (Iglau), where his father, by his own very considerable efforts had raised himself from being little more than a pedlar with a desire for self-improvement to the running of taverns and a distillery. Mahler’s musical abilities were developed first in Jihlava, before a brief period of schooling in Prague, which ended unhappily, and a later course of study at the Conservatory in Vienna, where he turned from the piano to composition and, as a necessary corollary, to conducting.

It was as a conductor that Mahler made his career, at first in a series of provincial opera-houses, then in Prague, Budapest and Hamburg, before moving to a position of the highest distinction of all, when in 1897 he became Kapellmeister of the Vienna Court Opera, two months after his baptism as a Catholic, a necessary preliminary. In Vienna he effected significant reforms at the Court Opera but made enough enemies, particularly represented in the anti-semitic press, to lead to his resignation in 1907. There followed a final period conducting in America and elsewhere, in a vain attempt to secure his family’s future before his own imminent death, which took place a week after his final return to Vienna, on 18th May, 1911.

Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor dates from 1876, the end of his first year at the Vienna Conservatory, where the only completed movement was first performed. The movement was played again at the house of Brahms’s friend Theodor Billroth and in the same year in Iglau. The completed first movement was followed by 24 bars of a Scherzo, and the manuscript was found in the 1960s by Mahler’s widow, Alma. It seems probable that the quartet movement was the prize-winning work that crowned Mahler’s first year at the Conservatory. A full account of the work, which is largely within the conventions of the time, is given by Donald Mitchell in the first volume of his important study of the composer.*

Keith Anderson

* Donald Mitchell: Gustav Mahler. The Early Years, London, 1958. pp. 123–127 et passim

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