Brahms’s Turbulent Piano Quintet program notes

Tuesday, August 17, 2021 , 6:30 PM

Brahms : Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118

Brahms: Quintet in F Minor for Two Violins, Viola, Cello and Piano, Op. 34a

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118

Composed: 1893
Instrumentation: Piano

Brahms wrote 18 individual piano pieces that he titled “Intermezzo,” most of which appear as part of the late collections of his Ops. 116 to 119. As applied to non-stage works, the term had been used only sporadically by some earlier composers. Most often, the term would substitute for the “Scherzo” in a multimovement work (Mendelssohn) or for the “Trio” section within such a movement (Schumann), suggesting a character distinct from these older terms. Brahms himself substituted an Intermezzo for the expected Scherzo in his Op. 25 Piano Quartet (1861), and he included an “extra” Intermezzo movement in his Op. 5 Piano Sonata (1853). But the collections of piano Intermezzi from Brahms’s later period came to define the genre.

It is difficult to characterize the Intermezzi generally as they express a wide variety of sentiments in musically diverse structures. However, they do share a concentrated intensity, an emotional immediacy, and a lyrical sensibility that gives them an intimacy, as if we are peering into a window into Brahms’s innermost thoughts and reflections.

The A major Intermezzo is the best known of the set. It is marked Andante teneramente (tenderly), and from the very start, with its soaring melody accompanied by slowly cascading arpeggios, there is a bittersweet wistfulness to the piece. There is a focus on the D major harmony (the so-called IV chord) in the opening phrases, which creates an aura of nostalgia and perhaps a twinge of regret in the character of the music. The middle section shifts to a melancholy F-sharp minor, alternating unsettled triplet-duplet clashing rhythms with a calm chorale-like chordal progression.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Quintet in F Minor for Two Violins, Viola, Cello and Piano, Op. 34a

Composed: 1893
Instrumentation: 2 violins, viola, cello, and piano

Brahms’s only piano quintet had a particularly unusual gestation. In 1862, Brahms began by scoring his Op. 34 for string quintet with two cellos, perhaps influenced by the success of Schubert’s work of that form. Although Clara Schumann had only good things to say about the piece, Joseph Joachim, the great violinist and friend of Brahms, claimed that the string parts were simply too difficult. Taking his friend’s advice, Brahms rescored the piece as a sonata for two pianos. Now Clara Schumann objected, finding that the piece sounded too much like the arrangement that it was and suggesting that Brahms could solve this problem by rewriting it again, now as a piano quintet. While not completely dissatisfied with his piano duo (which he eventually published as Op. 34b), Brahms wisely followed Clara’s counsel to produce one of the three or four best-known and best-loved piano quintets today.

In an 1865 letter to Brahms, 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.
The original string quintet scoring reveals a debt to Schubert’s magnificent C major string quintet. However, the respected American pianist Charles Rosen suggests an even greater influence 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 comparable 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 opening measures are unique: the piano plays an arpeggiating theme in octaves with the cello and first violin, marked mf, coming quickly to a ritard (slowing down) and fermata (pause). The mood is peculiarly ambiguous: bold and hesitant, secure and searching. It is an introduction that sets up the first movement, a melodically rich offering that is indeed built from a series of distinctive, expressively contrasting themes. 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.

In recasting his two-piano version of the piece as a piano quintet, Brahms frequently chose to retain one of the two piano parts or even to combine the right hand of one piano with the left of the other to form the piano part of the quintet. He distributed the remainder of the music to the four string parts, setting up a dichotomy between the piano and the string quartet in his quintet. This is especially evident in the exquisite second movement, where the piano has the main calm, lyrical theme extending through the first 34 measures of the movement. At this point, 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. The somewhat confusing tempo marking here (indicating something between andante and adagio) has led to widely varying interpretations, with performances clocking in between just over 6 minutes (the Montreal String Quartet with Gould) to just under 10 minutes (the Borodin Quartet with Richter).

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 following 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 striking tonal clashes here are reminiscent of the unusual opening of the Mozart “Dissonance” Quartet, which the Edgar M. Bronfman String Quartet performed one week ago.) The main part of the movement is formally free, establishing two contrasting themes—a folk-like dance that first appears in the cello (perhaps derived from the same folk theme that inspired Smetana’s The Moldau from two nights ago) and a more sustained, chromatic theme. These two alternate and eventually are united at the fiery close of this impressive quintet.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi