Brahms Piano Quintet in Fm, op. 34

performed by the Quartetto Italiano and Maurizio Pollini, or below by the Amadeus Quartet with Christoph Eschenbach

(cover image by Vidar Nordli Mathisen)

Have you ever had that experience of meeting (well, more like being in the presence of) someone so magically charismatic, so arresting, that you couldn’t even approach them, and would rather just sit aside and watch and listen? Today’s piece gives me that feeling, of just being overcome with awe and amazement at its intensity and greatness. It possesses “a heroic tragedy,” says Kelly Dean Hansen, but is at no time cloying or overdone in the way that, say, Tchaikovsky might get a little whiny or soggy.

Instead, the four movements of today’s work, the “crown of his chamber music” and his sole piano quintet, present a handsome, sometimes even imposing, but breathtakingly powerful, heartfelt expression of astoundingly deep emotion. Let’s get into it.

The work apparently had a rather long gestation, beginning its life as a string quintet, and then it became a sonata for two pianos. The final form with string quartet and piano seems then like a kind of compromise, and surprisingly, unlike its smaller sibling the piano quartet, hadn’t really gotten much off the ground until Schumann’s own version appeared in 1842.

Brahms’ work was completed in 1864 and published the following year. It is dedicated to Her Royal Highness Princess Anna of Hesse. There is barely a sunny spot in this entire work, in its four movements, lasting more than 40 minutes:

  1. Allegro non troppo (F minor)
  2. Andante, un poco adagio (A major)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro (C minor → C major, trio in C major)
  4. Finale: Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo – Presto, non troppo (F minor)

Aside from being in a form that didn’t have much precedent beyond just a few decades prior, there are some interesting structural qualities of the work. The first and longest movement is in sonata form, with an exposition repeat, development, recapitulation and coda. What you’ll notice in the exposition, despite the breathtaking richness of the first theme (played by heavy-handed piano, first violin and cello in unison), is that both themes are in minor keys here. The first, in the ‘home key’ of F minor, is obviously, clearly, overwhelmingly, irresistibly tragic. It’s actually kind of a pure, unadulterated tragedy, really. To me, there’s no anger, or bitterness, or sorrow; if you can separate sorrow from tragedy, this is what the tragedy would sound like, if that makes sense.

So that’s readily apparent, like an enormous wave washing over us and dragging all our emotions out to sea. But the second subject, you might think, is where we can come up for air, but still not really. The second subject should move to the dominant key, or whatever, but instead of C minor, we move to C# minor, a half-step away from where we’d expect to be. That’s interesting, and wouldn’t be too notable until, as Hansen points out in his ever-exhaustive analysis of the work, we see that the half-step plays an important part in the rest of the work, most importantly in the finale.

After that first movement (16 minutes in the recording with Pollini; just shy of 15 in the recording that Hansen references with Christoph Eschenbach), we get the closest thing to relief in the entire work. The second movement, in A flat major, is in ternary form, and is a tapestry of comfort. Even if it weren’t alongside the first movement, this chapter would still seem simple and tender; it strikes an enormous contrast with what came before, necessarily balancing it out. While we still got contrast and conflict between the two themes of the first movement, almost all the respite, any lightness, was all deferred to this andante. Even here, there’s melancholy, though, with full-bodied climaxes, but the overwhelming atmosphere is lush and loving.

The third movement scherzo is sublime, maybe the most remarkable movement of the work. It is a “Scherzo –  Allegro (Developmental Scherzo with Trio),” as Hansen labels it. There are two parts to the scherzo, with a development and coda and all the rest. It’s not necessarily important to know the details, but simply that it’s more complex than the standard layout is at the very least interesting. We have very direct conflict here; it should be easy to hear the difference between C major and C minor, one heroic, triumphant, the other maniacal, even “demonic.” It’s remarkable the intensity Brahms can whip up and what he’s able to accomplish musically, emotionally, with this movement, in what is really, for the form, quite a short period of time. Just jaw-dropping, really.

The finale gives us quite a bit to chew on, as if the rest of this work hadn’t already. I’ll forward you again to Hansen’s analysis if you really want the nuts and bolts of it all, about they importance of keys, and the emphasis on that half-step interval and all the rest. He refers to the movement as a “Varied Sonata-Rondo [Binary] form, with introduction and extended coda.” Again, not really an important detail. The long introduction is solemn, sorrowful, and if you’re hoping for some emotional resolve, a light at the end of some tunnel, don’t hold your breath. Brahms sticks to his guns here, with unrelenting melancholy. It’s turbulent and again, while emotional, is never overdone or unmusical. There is as ever a brilliant balance between the musical integrity and emotional impact of the work, but unlike, say, the first symphony or piano concerto, there’s no bright finish. We end darkly.

Wow. It’s pretty grim, but it’s remarkable for not devolving into sappy emotion like Tchaikovsky, or soul-crushing hopelessness like Mahler. It’s just… maybe realist? But also soul-stirring and real.

Well, that’ll be it from Brahms for a while, I think, but we’re back tomorrow with more minuscule music for piano, so stay tuned for that and thanks so much for listening.

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