Brahms’ Magnum Opus program notes

Saturday, August 15, 2020 , 6:30 PM

Brahms: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 (1862-64)

In an 1865 letter to Brahms, Hungarian violinist and lifelong friend, Joseph Joachim writes that the F minor quintet is a “masterpiece of chamber music, the likes of which we have not seen since the year 1828.” That was the year of Schubert’s death, and indeed Brahms may have been drawing on the inspiration of his Viennese predecessor while composing his quintet. While the original string quintet scoring cannot help but conjure Schubert’s magnificent C major string quintet, an even greater influence—pointed out by Charles Rosen—may have been Schubert’s Grand Duo for two pianos, which Brahms had been studying around the time of composing his piano quintet. The last movements of these two works in particular seem closely aligned: they employ similar melodies and use common meter, phrase structure, accompaniment figures, and syncopations. As a great admirer of Schubert, Brahms could only have been flattered by any such comparisons, but in the end, the piano quintet is uniquely Brahmsian in its broad conception of melody, rhythmic vitality, and innovative use of form.

The melodically rich first movement is built from a series of distinctive, contrasting themes compactly stated in the exposition. The genius of Brahms is that the music never feels like a patchwork; the themes emerge naturally one from the next—from mysterious to stormy to heartbreakingly expressive—despite the economical use of transition material. The melodies are revisited and rearranged in the surprisingly low-key development section, and the innovative coda is a masterful expansion of the first eight measures of the piece.

The exquisite Andante presents a tranquil, lyrical theme in the piano extending through the first 34 measures of the movement before a shift to triplets ushers in the second theme in an unusual unison between the second violin and viola. When the first theme returns, it shifts from the piano to the strings.

With its eerie syncopations and double-bass-like pizzicatos in the cello, the opening of the scherzo almost sounds like it emerged from the jazz era. The subsequent dotted-rhythm theme contrasts nicely without losing rhythmic vitality and is dramatically transformed into a triumphant march. The more lyrical trio material is ingeniously derived from this third theme.

The slow, highly chromatic introduction to the finale builds on fugal entrances that poignantly outline a minor 9th. The main part of the movement is formally free, establishing two contrasting themes—a folk-like dance that first appears in the cello and a more sustained, chromatic theme—that alternate and eventually unite at the close of this impressive quintet.

—Program notes by Jon Kochavi