performed by Tamás Vásáry, Thomas Brandis, Wolfram Christ and Ottomar Borwitzky, or below with Sviatoslav Richter and members of the Borodin Quartet
(cover image by Maciej Rusek)
We recently discussed the G minor quartet, op. 25, and it was a reminder for me that people like Brahms and Beethoven may be wildly famous for their bigger works, like symphonies, piano concertos and the like. In Brahms’s case, we only have four symphonies, three concertos (and the double), and his Requiem, as big works go. So if you really want insight into the composer, a bigger picture of who this outstandingly talented man is, we have a greater wealth of his chamber music than just about anything else.
The next one in line, op. 26, is also a piano quartet. It was completed in 1861 but premiered in 1863 with the composer at the piano. We’ll see, in a way, the influence of Schubert on the (still) young Brahms. That’s mentioned in some discussion of this piece online, and I can’t say I’d listen to the piece and say, unprompted, that “This is Schubert-esque,” or point to anything besides its overall tranquility and superb finesse that would actually be evidence for such an association, but that’s that.
This is a large work, Brahms’s longest chamber piece. The op. 25 quartet with its four movements came in at just shy of 40 minutes, while this work pushes 50. Its four movements are as follows:
- Allegro non troppo (A major)
- Poco adagio (E major)
- Scherzo: Poco allegro (A major, trio in D minor)
- Finale: Allegro (A major)
The first and last movements are in sonata form, the second movement is a rondo, and the third movement is, as we would expect, a scherzo and trio. Uniquely, though, both portions of this single movement are in a sort of sonata form, quite a hefty structure. But then again, this is a hefty piece.
The piece begins with a theme from piano that’s immediately contrasted by a melodic line from the cello. Strings and piano trade roles, and this elegant exchange of ideas begins the generally tranquil, Schubert-inspired, deeply poetic work. The interval of a falling diminished seventh HERE may remind you of a similar figure in the first movement of the first symphony, and while the atmosphere of this work is altogether different, the gesture is similarly powerful.
This first movement sets the tone of the piece as a broader work, more symphonic, maybe, than its “companion piece” the Gm quartet. The movement isn’t all mellow Schubertian phrasing and curves, but if you listen to those two ideas presented at the very beginning of the movement, along with all their reappearances and contrasting subjects, you’ll have at least some appreciation for the wondrous sonata form Brahms weaves here, a handsome, sturdy and expressive first movement.
The second movement is also dreamily Romantic. Joseph Joachim, says Calum MacDonald, referred to its “ambiguous passion,” with muted strings acting like a veil that hides the sounds of the piano here and there. It’s loving and tender, but also so delightfully never saccharine or sappy. As you’d expect from Brahms, it embodies a captivating lyricism, but never loses its handsome poise.
The scherzo is also not a slap-you-in-the-face affair, much more along the lines of the more subtle intermezzo from the Gm quartet. It’s sort of inverted, though, building in energy in the scherzo proper, with the second theme and trio forming a “Hungarian canon.” That isn’t a weapon. It is effective, though, and warms us up a little bit for the finale, changing somewhat the trajectory of the piece so the final movement feels like a logical conclusion.
Speaking of Hungarian, MacDonald also says the finale has “plenty of the capricious Hungarian colouring we associated with the alla Zingarese finale of the Gm quartet.” Its “exotic flavor and idiosyncratic rhythms are subordinated to an ample, unhurried overall form.” This is surely the most lively movement so far, but still more subdued than the op. 25 finale.
This suits the work, though, softer and (not always) quieter than its companion, but also of substantial power in its own way. Brahms uses no cheap tricks or theatrics. There’s no pandering or laboriousness to be found, just balance in about every aspect, but a satisfying finish to this largest piece
Whether we compare just the finales of these two works, or the pieces overall, I feel like there’s an inclination to compare them in the same way one might compare the first and second piano concertos, a youthful, vibrant extroverted piece, and a mature, deeper, more ‘spiritual’ sounding piece, but these come from the same time in the composer’s life, so not really.
More likely, and I appreciate this from an artistic perspective, is that there doesn’t have to be any reactionary or third-party influence to a work aside from just wanting to write something different. It’s a fanciful, Romantic idea to attribute the sound of a piece to a certain mood or situation or train of thought, but that train of thought could just as easily be, “Let’s try this.” And in this case, aren’t we glad he did?
We’ve gotten around to a handful of Brahms’s chamber works, but still not a single string quartet. We’ll get there eventually, but in the next few days, we’ll be seeing something much bigger from him, so please do stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.