Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in Gm, op. 25

performed by Tamás Vásáry, Thomas Brandis, Wolfram Christ and Ottomar Borwitzky, or below by Ax, Stern, Laredo, and Ma

(cover image by Patrick Fischer)

If you haven’t yet discovered Brahms’s chamber music, here’s a bit more for you. We’ve done a string sextet of his, a piano trio, the op. 40 horn trio, a violin sonata, cello sonata and two of the three piano sonatas, but there’s so much more in this capacity to appreciate.

I approached Brahms the same way I approached Beethoven and others: begin by listening to their symphonies and concertos, and virtually ignore their other (i.e. chamber) works. As you can see, though, that’s being remedied, as we’re getting around to much of Beethoven’s chamber and solo pieces. Brahms really shines in the chamber repertoire.

The op. 25 piano quartet was written between 1856 and 1861, and premiered in that year in Hamburg, with his dear friend Clara Schumann at the piano. The work lasts close to 40  minutes, and is in four movements, as follows:

  1. Allegro (G minor)
  2. Intermezzo: Allegro ma non troppo — Trio: Animato (C minor, ends in C major)
  3. Andante con moto (E major)
  4. Rondo alla Zingarese: Presto (G minor)

The first movement is in sonata form, and begins with zero foreword or introduction. The very first utterance in this work turns out to be a critical one, like the underlying shape upon which the entire work is based, a trademark or a stamp, if you will. This is a brooding movement with the second theme beginning with a high cello. Calum MacDonald says at Hyperion that the “almost reckless expansion and length of themes” is balanced by the “ruthless concentration on the one-bar motif that is the foundation of the very first theme,” especially in the development section. It’s like the fuel that propels the movement, and there’s no need to say much further about the melancholy, outstandingly musical presentation of the first movement. Almost no matter how you listen or what you listen for, it’s a gem.

The second movement isn’t a scherzo, as you see from the above listings, but rather an intermezzo with trio. While much of the work is in C minor, it’s not dark or violent. Wikipedia references the movement’s “agitation,” but I’d use a less aggressive term, like restlessness, something that’s stirring, but never really churning and certainly not sloshing or splashing. The move into the trio brings us to C major, and it’s in two parts, both of which are in major keys. We return to the intermezzo but finish with a coda in C major that restates material from the trio. This is essentially the same form as a scherzo with trio, but it’s lighter, similar to the composer’s approaches to what should have been scherzos in the composer’s first three symphonies.

The third movement is also in ternary form. Both themes are in a major key, and this movement has a profusion of musical ideas. If you want to see all of them in this piece, or most of Brahms’s other pieces, go read Kelly Dean Hansen’s writeup. It’s way beyond what I’m capable of, but fascinating if you’re into that kind of analysis.

Grouped into larger sections, though, we can see the overall layout of this slow movement, get the general idea of the elegant first theme and the second theme that becomes regally march-like. It is for me one of the most glorious, memorable passages in the entire piece, so balanced. There are passages of rich, almost entirely orchestral fullness here, and some dissonances that might surprise you coming from the (young) Brahms’s pen. The march feels like our destination, some kind of a welcoming ceremony for the listener, having survived the journey, but we haven’t even gotten to the finale yet, or returned to the E-flat opening theme that will close out this lovely movement.

Joseph Joachim, the Hungarian violinist who breathed (at least some) life (as in interest) back into the Beethoven violin concerto, adored this Hungarian, gypsy-esque rondo. It’s exuberant, spirited, unquestionably the most extroverted thing we’ve heard in this movement. If you get a sense that Brahms, especially the young Brahms, often takes himself quite seriously, or tries to prove himself a little too often, has lots of gravity to his work (and you may be right), listen to this finale that is just loads of fun and excitement. In this clearly delineated rondo, there are five contrasting sections against the four appearances of the rondo theme, the final one coming after a development section. Its liveliness is so different from and yet somehow also so in keeping with the rest of the piece, perhaps because its spiritedness matches the (very different) intensity of the other three movements. The final bars are absolutely, literally breathtaking.

In listening to this finale, it may not surprise you to know that this is considered to be one of Brahms’s most challenging movements of his chamber output to pull off, not just for the pianist or a single instrument, although they have their individual challenges for sure, but as a group. The video above begins at around the eleven-minute mark, but before that is a series of clips of these performers preparing the recording, and it’s no walk in the park.

When it, and all the rest of Brahms, is done right, though, it’s magical. Again, what a special, almost spiritual place is Brahms’s chamber music. It is as if… with the symphonies, we are hearing the man speak in a public place, to a large audience. We’re seeing and hearing him live, so it’s certainly exciting, and he has plenty to say, but these more intimate works, in some cases just as large-scale as the symphonies (or close), are like going backstage, sitting down with the man and getting to know him a little better, and if that idea appeals to you, I cannot recommend enough that you take some time to warm up to Brahms’s chamber music, or the chamber music of whoever you’re currently fancying.

I’m still in America at the time this article posts, but I wrote it many weeks before, at home in my IKEA office chair. This is the last post of the month, but we have very many exciting things coming up in March, some very big, so stay tuned for that, and thank you so much for reading.

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