The Basics: Brahms Chamber Music

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Brahms_image  Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) always said that the two most important events in his lifetime were the launch of the complete scholarly Bach Edition in 1850 and Bismarck’s unification of the German state in 1871. We understand why Brahms, who loved Germany’s folk songs, its poetry, legends, and landscape, would have welcomed political unity for his homeland. On the other hand, what did the Bach-Gesellschaft Edition mean to him?

Brahms embraced the Romantic idealism of his own time, but he also took a keen interest in bygone eras. The music of J. S. Bach, with its well-formed polyphony, its respect for firm structure and clear boundaries, was a particular source of fascination to Brahms. He edited some of the old master’s works for the Gesellschaft and adopted a number of Bach themes and/or forms for his own works: consider the great finale of Symphony No. 4, for instance, built around a Baroque procedure called the passacaglia and featuring an obsessively repeated bass line lifted from Bach’s Cantata BWV 150.

Brahms’ antiquarian tendencies showed up in one other big way: he created chamber music, tons of it (he reportedly threw away more of his music in all categories than he ever allowed to be heard). String quartets, solo sonatas with piano accompaniment, piano trios, piano quartets and a quintet, for pete’s sake. There were piano duets and string quintets and sextets. All of it for a handful of players—one-on-a-part, demanding stuff. The Romantics by and large didn’t go in for “absolute” music like this. They wanted size, color, and power—and a story, if possible. That meant opera and symphonies and the occasional concerto (a big, colorful, powerful concerto, of course). Brahms is the only great Romantic who wrote much of his very best music for two to six musicians. Corelli may have been the “father” of the trio (okay, the trio sonata) and Papa Haydn the string quartet, but guess what? Long after Corelli and Haydn were gone, their renegade offspring Johannes Brahms continued to breathe new life into those genres.

Let’s begin at the ending. You already know how a string quartet is put together: two violins, a viola, and a cello, all roughly equal partners in musical conversation, thanks to Haydn’s having nurtured the genre’s evolution a couple of generations earlier. Brahms wrote string quartets too. More often, though, his Romantic urges led him elsewhere: his sextets and quintets for strings generally outstrip his quartets. First he expanded the string ensemble to six and then (in a paradoxical further stroke of genius) walked it back to five. With these expansions he gained more power, more color, and more voices, but mainly more voices. You can easily work out the combinations: in a quartet, discourse often boils down to one-against-three or two-against-two or wrinkles on them. In a sextet the possibilities increase: you can go three-against-three, one-against-three, one-against-four, two-against-three, and more. Listen to how that works in the opening measures of the String Quintet in G, op. 111:

Brahms: String Quintet No 2 in G major, Op 111 – 1: Allegro non troppo ma con brio

In the quintets you get an extra viola. What you heard at the beginning was the four upper strings providing a pulsating accompaniment to the spikier cello line. If this were a narrative, the cello would be the hero.

Takacs_QuintetsBut it’s not that simple. The cellist is going to give way—quickly, at 0:20—to a sort of call-and-response with the two violins, who usher in a full-throated, very polyphonic tutti (0:25) in which the upper three voices play an enhanced role, and that leads into a transition (0:57) in which the second violin provides the thematic glue, and then? A lovely second theme emerges (1:13), played by the two violas, answered delicately by the violins as the cellist now offers basic bass, pizzicato. (While all this is going on, Brahms is messing with rhythm as well, making 3+2+2+2 patterns out of the 9/8 meter, mixing it into elaborate Bach-ish counterpoint among the five string voices. Unbelievable.)

You’re not necessarily going to hear all that at once. What should reach your ears is the tumbling exuberance in this music. One of Brahms’ friends told him it reminded him of the Prater, Vienna’s version of Central Park. “You guessed it!” Brahms responded. “And the delightful girls there.”

This Quintet op. 111 is my new favorite Brahms. (You’re going to encounter five or six previous “favorites” in this column as well.) Its four movements hew closely to Classic notions of form. So the sonata-form Allegro is followed by an Adagio. The first viola leads off:

Brahms: String Quintet No 2 in G major, Op 111 – 2: Adagio

Then we get a Scherzo, although like many of Brahms’ triple-meter third movements, it’s neither quick nor fiery. “Pensive, wistful, and dreamy,” chamber-music maven Melvin Berger called it:

Brahms: String Quintet No 2 in G major, Op 111 – 3: Un poco allegretto

And eventually, a vigorous Hungarian finale:

Brahms: String Quintet No 2 in G major, Op 111 – 4: Vivace ma non troppo presto – Animato

You have been listening to the Takács Quartet plus star British violist Lawrence Power in a 2014 Hyperion release (CDA67900) that includes the earlier String Quintet in F, op. 88. Top-flight work from everyone; also available as a 24/96 download.

Now, backward to the sextets! As I mentioned, these are earlier works, dating from 1857–60 (op. 18 in B-flat) and 1864 (op. 36 in G). In general they strike a mellow tone: Brahms wrote most of op. 18 while resident at the court of Detmold. There his professional responsibilities were minimal, allowing him ample time to compose and to explore the surrounding forest lands. In these works you will hear two violins, two violas, and two cellos, which provide extra warmth at the lower end of the spectrum. Here is the opening of op. 18:

Brahms: String Sextet #1 In B Flat, Op. 18 – 1. Allegro Ma Non Troppo

Brahms’ first love had been Clara Schumann, wife of his great friend and advocate Robert Schumann. After Schumann’s death in 1856, they presumably could have married, but by then Brahms had concluded that, as an artist, he should remain free. (He even adopted a musical motto, “F. A. F.,” “free but happy,” in response to his friend Joseph Joachim’s “F. A. E.,” which translated as “free but lonely.”) Of course, having put up with one composer already, Clara may have harbored her own reservations about pairing up with another. In any case, she never remarried, and Johannes remained single as well. They maintained an intense, spiritually intimate friendship for the rest of their lives (he died less than a year after she had passed).

RaphaelPost-Clara, Brahms had many affairs. One of the most serious was with young soprano Agathe von Siebold, whom he met in the summer of 1858 and courted ever more seriously over the next few months. But early in 1859 the failure of the D-Minor Piano Concerto at its premiere apparently raised doubts in his mind about his prospects as a Good Provider. He broke off the relationship in such a clumsy manner that Agathe had little choice but to consider him a cad and reject him utterly. Brahms felt guilty about it for years.

The String Sextet op. 36 addresses this guilt, but obliquely. In its first movement a motive appears, spelling out Agathe’s name in notes: A. G. A. H. (B-natural for Germans) and E. (“T” is not a note in any language, so it is omitted.) You can hear this little tune toward the end of the second theme area (about 0:35 in this clip):

Brahms: String Sextet #2 In G, Op. 36 – 1. Allegro Non Troppo

To a friend, Brahms wrote that “here I have freed myself from my last love.” At first you may wonder how he meant that. The “Agathe” motive appears as a cadential, i.e., closing tune. It initially functions to end the exposition section, which seems a little cold. There must be more. I have come to consider the tenderness of the other themes, and the constant, wavering figures that accompany them for much of the movement, as an integral part of “Agathe.” Together, they form a more appropriate remembrance of the idyllic summer he spent with her. Listen:

Brahms: String Sextet #2 In G, Op. 36 – 1. Allegro Non Troppo

The music builds to a passionate climax, immediately after which the “Agathe” theme is heard. So this is not a dismissal. Rather, it’s a memory so dear the composer can barely bring himself to voice it. That sounds more like Brahms.

We have been listening to the Raphael Ensemble in the first recording they made for Hyperion (CDA66276), way back in 1988. It’s still my reference for these works. Some Brahms lovers find the sound too harshly “digital,” the performances over-controlled. For early-digital haters, there is a remastered version available, which you can spot via Hyperion’s “20th Anniversary special limited edition” jacket. For fans of less control, there are several all-star recordings. String players love these pieces, and that includes big-name string players, who—it must be said—do not always enter fully into the spirit of ensemble collaboration (but see below).

Seriously, regarding all-star lineups: some fans will steer you toward the Stern-Ma-Laredo recording for Sony (S2K 45820). May I suggest two others? You should not leave this earth without hearing Pablo Casals’ great performance for the Prades Festival in 1952 (Sony Classical). It features Stern also—not the occasionally tentative violinist of the later recording but a young man in his prime—plus Milton Katims, Alexander “Sascha” Schneider and company. Put up with the tubby mono sound! Bask in Casals’ genius!

casals   marlboro   Graphic Tetzlaff

The Prades Festival recording of op. 18 comes coupled with Casals, Stern, and Dame Myra Hess tackling the wonderful op. 8 Piano Trio. For the op. 36 String Quintet, try Rudolf Serkin’s hand-picked Marlboro Festival “student” team (Sony Classical SMK 46249); it’s coupled with Serkin’s own performance of the Horn Trio, for which he’s joined by Myron Bloom and Michael Tree. I guarantee you, none of these people is over-controlled!

Brahms was a pretty good pianist, especially in his younger days. No surprise, then, that some of his greatest chamber music came in a piano-plus-strings package. There are three Piano Trios, three Piano Quartets, a Piano Quintet, and a Horn Trio with piano. (I’m going to ignore the existence of the “posthumous” Piano Trio in A sometimes attributed to Brahms.)

Because Brahms revised his op. 8 Piano Trio No. 1 in B late in life, it stands as both his earliest such work and his last. Only the first theme of the original 1854 first movement survived his revisions. Yet what resulted was a more tautly organized piece that balanced lyricism with youthful passion. Listen:

Brahms: Piano Trio #1 In B, Op. 8 – 1. Allegro Con Brio

That’s from Tetzlaff, Tetzlaff, & Vogt, whom I couldn’t resist praising last month. Their new Ondine release (ODE 1271-2D; also available in 24/96 download) perfectly captures op. 8 for what it is: a seasoned musician’s valentine to his younger days. As exciting as the first movement is, the real heart of op. 8 lies in its two inner movements. First a quicksilver Scherzo, virtually unchanged from its 1854 incarnation:

Brahms: Piano Trio #1 In B, Op. 8 – 2. Scherzo

and then a haunting Beethovenian Adagio with an especially rich cello tune. If you get both the Ondine set and Casals’ Prades Festival disc, you’ll be able to compare Pau Casals’ way with that tune against Tanja Tetzlaff’s own worthy contribution (although personally, I would single out Christian Tetzlaff’s audaciously quiet violin entrances as the highlight of this track). TT&V do equally well with the other two Piano Trios, undisputed masterworks in Brahms’ oeuvre. Warm, velvety, spacious sound too.

In discussing these works we can’t get away from Brahms’ personal life; the Piano Quartets are no exception. All three were begun around the same time: between 1854 and 1856 or ‘57, when Robert Schumann had attempted suicide, was hospitalized, and passed away. Brahms set aside his sketches for the C Minor Piano Quartet, because he couldn’t handle its personal subtext (see below). Instead he completed first the G Minor Piano Quartet, an extrovert work known for its lively “gypsy” finale:

Brahms: Piano Quartet #1 In G Minor, Op. 25 – 4. Rondo Alla Zingarese

and then the A Major Piano Quartet, which premiered in November 1862, just days after the G Minor’s successful first performance. The A Major plumbs greater depths, especially in its vividly expressive slow movement. Here are some nice kids from the New England Conservatory performing the whole thing; jump to 14:15 to hear just the Andante.

To receive the full force of this cri de coeur, however, one must turn to a recording such as that of Stern-Laredo-Ma-Ax (Sony Classical S2K 45846). Despite anything I implied earlier, the Sony All-Stars are unmatched in this literature. Put simply, they bring what it requires.

Stern_et_alIn 1875 Brahms finally returned to his sketches for the C Minor Piano Quartet. He revised the first movement, retained the original third movement, and composed brand-new second and fourth movements. Most telling was the note he sent his publisher:

You may place a picture on the title page. Namely a head—with a pistol in front of it. This will give you some idea of the music. I shall send you a photograph of myself for the purpose. Blue coat, yellow breeches, and top-boots would do well, as you seem to like color printing.

Brahms’ none-too-subtle reference is to the protagonist of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, who kills himself because of his unrequited love for a friend’s wife. There’s more, musically, and you can read it here. Perhaps it is enough to say here that this is one of the very few works by Brahms in which he wears his heart (or at least his former heart) on his sleeve.

Takacs_Piano_QWe are running out of space, and there’s a lot more music left—again.

One work that absolutely deserves more space than we have left is the Piano Quintet in F Minor op. 34. This work went through a number of “final” revisions before Brahms settled on the instrumentation of string quartet plus piano. It remains a huge, almost symphonic work in its concept, but it retains the precision detail available to chamber music. Here is some of its third-movement Scherzo, courtesy of the Takács Quartet and pianist Stephen Hough (Hyperion CDA67551):

Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op 34 – 3: Scherzo: Allegro

Much of this movement’s melodic and rhythmic profile is derived from a similar movement by Beethoven. We know that Brahms felt both intimidated and inspired by his predecessor—that’s why he waited so long to launch his own symphonies into the world. You probably spotted the fact that the whole movement is based on a single motive played both fast and slow (such motivic development is a hallmark of Beethoven style). What other derivations can you hear? (Hint: the imported, very prominent rhythmic figure is the easiest element to spot.) Here’s the Beethoven just to remind you of its content:

And so on to our highlights reel: I’ve already mentioned the Horn Trio. You can read more about Brahms’ love of the “natural” horn in one of my earlier columns. The recording recommended there includes Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov performing one of Brahms’ most ingratiating duo sonatas, the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in G Major (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901981).

Faust_MelnikovThis year Faust and Melnikov released similar (i.e., historically informed) performances of Brahms’ other violin sonatas, and these are worth hearing as well (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902219). Melnikov plays his own 19th-century Bösendorfer piano; Faust employs her Strad with unusual grace and sensitivity. Strongly recommended.

Dumay_PiresFor those who can’t abide the sound of anything other than a Steinway D in Brahms, a number of good modern-instrument recordings are available. My own reference recording for the violin sonatas is that of Augustin Dumay and Maria João Pires (DG 435 800; 1992), who BTW have recorded Nos. 1 and 2 of the Piano Trios with cellist Jian Wang (DG  447 055). That one’s a keeper too.

Now—in closing may I offer a few thoughts about Brahms’ remarkable collaboration with a clarinetist? When he was not yet 60, Brahms announced to anyone who’d listen that he was retiring. “I have worked enough; now let the young folks take over,” he said. His resolve to quit lasted just long enough for him to encounter the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist in the orchestra at Meiningen.

It was love at first note. Brahms dubbed Mühlfeld the greatest wind player in the world. Over the next few years he created for him a Clarinet Trio (op. 114), a Clarinet Quintet (op. 115), and two duo sonatas (op. 120). They rank not only among the greatest chamber music ever written for clarinet, but among Brahms’ greatest chamber works, period. Every clarinetist learns to play the sonatas. A lucky few get to participate in the Trio and Quintet.

What was it about the clarinet, and especially Mühlfeld’s mastery of it, that drove Brahms back into creative activity? I think the opening bars of the Clarinet Quintet offer some clues:

Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115: I. Allegro – Quasi sostenuto

That Italianate initial gesture from the violins, quickly joined by the other strings, is both songlike—vocal—and passionately disturbing. It sets in motion an inner drama within the first 10 seconds. Enter the clarinet, gracefully arpeggiating upward from the lower parts of its range — and momentarily sweeping aside those passionate concerns. Somehow it floats free, or nearly so. In the coming passages, it both joins in and remains slightly apart from the expressive discourse.

Because it’s a clarinet. There is something quite characteristic about the sound and technique of this instrument: call it sang-froid. The tone may seem woody and warm, but at its core is a coolness, a resistance to fully expressive vocality, that cannot be budged. Clarinets are capable of considerable dynamic flexibility, and they can move very quickly through their three-octave range. But most clarinetists find it difficult or undesirable to cultivate vibrato, and they exercise such care in controlling timbre and intonation that a certain inflexibility creeps in.

Frost_op114   Michael Collins   Yulefest

As a clarinetist, you can either push against these tendencies or celebrate them. Some of my favorite performers—like the great Richard Stoltzman—push back, and we are the richer for it. Others—like Martin Fröst and Michael Collins and Jon Manassas—seem to accept the beast’s basic nature. When it comes to Brahms, that second tendency may be helpful. It seems to me that Brahms understood this. His divided soul answered a siren call.

Over the past few years, I’ve often been seduced by the sound of Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst. His pristine recordings for BIS have met with acclaim, and also with sporadic online muttering from other clarinetists, who wonder just what tricks he pulled in the studio to get those sounds. It ain’t right! Cue Robert Johnson singing “Crossroads.” Cue the old newsreel footage of French trumpet players frantically examining Louis Armstrong’s horn, looking for the hidden machinery that enabled the Armstrong magic.

Two SACDs from Fröst contain all of Brahms’ chamber music for clarinet. The newer one features the op. 115 Quintet with a hand-picked “dream team” including violinist Janine Jansen and violist Maxim Rysanov, plus six lovely song transcriptions and  Fröst’s 2004 recording of the Trio op. 114. If you buy the older recording, you get op. 114 and the two Sonatas op. 120. So, not the most value-sensitive packaging around, although Fröst’s wizardry is evident.

Nevertheless I now prefer Michael Collins in this repertoire. He does an especially nice job with the Brodsky Quartet on op. 115 (Chandos CHAN10817), coupled with Brahms’ popular String Quartet in A Minor, op. 51 no. 2. There’s something to be said for collaborating with a longstanding string quartet, particularly one as distinguished as the Brodskys. They shape every phrase together; the end result seems more consistently coherent. Here’s some of the slow movement in their capable hands:

Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115: II. Adagio – Più lento – Tempo I

Nothing quite like Brahms, is there? I hope we get to the string quartets, not to mention the cello sonatas, in some future Basics column. In the meantime, happy holidays! Drive safely! Stay warm! Keep listening!

Postscript: The New York Times‘ classical critics have compiled a “Best of 2015” list, and I’m flattered that three of my earlier recommendations show up on it. Also a couple of recordings I took a pass on: Trifonov’s Rachmaninoff collection and Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians from Brad Lubman. They’re both good recordings, but they face fierce competition from older, slightly stronger albums. Likewise Pappano’s Aida, which I will probably explore further in the new year anyway.

PPS: Here’s something good for trimming-the-tree time: Yulefest, from the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge and its director Stephen Layton. Check out the track listing — this is not your father’s British cathedral choir. Any group with the cheek to lead off with “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” “In the Bleak Mid-Winter,” and “White Christmas,” all in lush close-harmony arrangements, gets my vote. Slightly naughty but mainly nice. It’ll put you in the mood.