BRAHMS: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 12 (Christian Kohn/ Silke-Thora Matthies/ Tonstudio Van Geest) (Naxos: 8.554412)
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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 sonof a double-bass player and his much older wife, aseamstress. His childhood was spent in relative poverty,and his early studies in music, for which he showed anatural aptitude, developed his talent to such an extentthat there was talk of touring as a prodigy at the age ofeleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him agrounding in the technical basis of composition, whilethe boy helped his family by playing the piano insummer inns.
In 1851 Brahms met the emigre Hungarian violinistRemenyi, who introduced him to Hungarian dancemusic that had a later influence on his work. Two yearslater he set out in his company on his first concert tour,their journey taking them, on the recommendation of theHungarian violinist Joachim, to Weimar, where FranzLiszt held court and might have been expected to showparticular favour to a fellow-countryman. Remenyiprofited from the visit, but Brahms, with a lack of tactthat 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 fruitfulone.
In 1850 Schumann had taken up the offer from theprevious incumbent, Ferdinand Hiller, of the position ofmunicipal director of music in D??sseldorf, the firstofficial appointment of his career and the last. Now inthe music of Brahms he detected a promise of greatnessand published his views in the journal he had onceedited, the Neue Zeitschrift f??r Musik, declaring Brahmsthe long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In thefollowing year Schumann, who had long suffered fromintermittent periods of intense depression, attemptedsuicide. His final years, until his death in 1856, were tobe spent in an asylum, while Brahms rallied to thesupport of Schumann's wife, the gifted pianist ClaraSchumann, and her young family, remaining a firmfriend until her death in 1896, shortly before his own inthe following year.
Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later hewould be able to return in triumph to a position ofdistinction in the musical life of Hamburg. Thisambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled inVienna, intermittently from 1863 and definitively in1869, establishing himself there and seeming to many tofulfil Schumann's early prophecy. In him his supporters,including, above all, the distinguished critic and writerEduard Hanslick, saw a true successor to Beethoven anda champion of music untrammelled by extra-musicalassociations, of pure music, as opposed to the Music ofthe Future promoted by Wagner and Liszt, a path towhich Joachim and Brahms both later publiclyexpressed their opposition.
Like Mozart's, the two string quintets of Brahms arescored for two violins, two violas and cello. The choiceis characteristic. The register of the violas and therichness of texture that such an instrumentation canimpart, whether in chamber music or in orchestralwriting, was very typical of Brahms, and reflected in hismusic for the piano. He had first attempted the form in1862, using two cellos, as Schubert had done, but haddestroyed it, replacing it first with an arrangement fortwo pianos, and later, in a final version, as a pianoquintet. Brahms had intended his String Quintet in Gmajor, 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 duringsummer holidays spent away from the city. It was, in theevent, to be followed by four further compositions, theClarinet Trio, the Clarinet Quintet, and two ClarinetSonatas, the last also known in an effectively autumnalversion for viola, an instrument offered in the otherworks as an alternative to the clarinet. The G majorQuintet was first performed in Vienna on 11thNovember in the year of its composition. It starts with amovement derived from sketches for a fifth symphony,allowing the cello an orchestrally conceived firstsubject. For the second subject Brahms turns to Viennafor inspiration. There is a shift to B flat major in thecentral development, further modulation leading to thereturn of the original key and thematic material inrecapitulation. The D minor slow movement allows freevariations on the opening material, until the themereturns in a simpler form, originally played by the firstviola. The third movement opens in a melancholy Gminor, the feeling dispelled by a G major trio section,which has the last word, after the re-appearance of the Gminor material. The quintet ends with a Vivace ma nontroppo presto, a rondo that finds a place for much elsethat is thoroughly Austrian or Austro-Hungarian inmood, ending in an energetic Hungarian czardas.
Clara Schumann appeared as the pianist in the firstperformance of Brahms's Piano Quartet in G minor,Op. 25, given in Hamburg in November 1861, on theoccasion of the third of a series of Hamburg concertsthat featured the ladies' choir, the HamburgerFrauenchor, informally established in 1859 andconducted by Brahms. In the summer of 1861 he hadmoved from his parents' house, where maritaldisagreements made life uncongenial, to lodge withfriends from the Frauenchor, where he enjoyed greatertranquillity. The new piano quartet was not his firstattempt at the genre. There had been an earlier pianoquartet, later transposed, revised and published in 1875as Opus 60. The G minor Quartet had been some yearsin gestation and there seemed something orchestralabout the conception. Brahms himself saw possibleproblems of balance between the demanding piano partand the strings, and made an arrangement for two pianosthat would avoid these. In 1937 Schoenberg, aware ofthe same possible problem, successfully rescored thework for orchestra.
Brahms himself performed the quartet withmembers of the Hellmesberger Quartet on his firstconcert appearance in Vienna in 1862. The criticHanslick was at first less impressed by the work, whilehe found Brahms's playing more that of a composer thana virtuoso, a judgement not entirely to the latter'sdiscredit. The themes of the quartet he found, though,insignificant, dry and prosaic, nevertheless suggestingthat, as always with Brahms, further study of the workwould reveal its many virtues. Its first subject is derivedfrom a simple motif, of contrapuntal suggestion, and thisforms the basis of the relatively short centraldevelopment. The second movement, at first with thetitle of Scherzo, is a C minor Intermezzo, with a moreebullient A flat major trio section. The Andante conmoto moves into E flat major, its song-like progressinterrupted by a central C major section, suggesting amarch, although still in triple metre. The work ends witha Hungarian rondo, particularly effective in the twopianoversion, Hungary seen through the prism ofVienna, an abiding memory of the composer's earlyassociation with the Hungarian emigre violinist EdeRemenyi, with whom he had, in 1853, embarked on hisfirst concert tour, and of his own Hungarian Dances.Keith Anderson