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Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34

October 5, 2014 – Arnaud Sussmann and Erin Keefe violins; Hsin-Yun Huang, viola; Rafael Figueroa, cello; Gilles Vonsattel, piano

In 1862 Brahms was seized with ideas for a string quintet of the Schubertian type—string quartet with second cello. Plagued with customary self doubts, and bearing in mind the friendly advice of violinist and composer Joseph Joachim that the ideas were too strong for the sonority of a string quintet, Brahms destroyed his first attempt, recasting it as a Sonata for two pianos in 1863–64. Brahms premiered this version with Carl Tausig early in 1864. Still unsatisfied, and heeding the advice of Clara Schumann, to whom it sounded like an arrangement, Brahms again rewrote the work in the summer of 1864 as a quintet for piano and strings. (This history brings to mind the composer’s First Piano Concerto, which also evolved through various forms.) Brahms’s Piano Quintet was published in 1865 after at least one private trial performance in November 1864; the first public performance took place in Leipzig on June 22, 1866.

The Quintet has become one of the most famous and best-loved works in the chamber music repertoire. Repeated hearings do nothing to dull the sense of its power and beauty. The Piano Quintet version has attracted the most performers, but Brahms thought enough of the two-piano version not to destroy it—a major vote of confidence where he was concerned. He had it published, moreover, with the separate opus number 34b, though not until 1872, seven years after the Quintet version was published. It seems that the dedicatee, Princess Anna von Hessen, had been holding onto the loaned manuscript all that time.

The opening figure, played in unison, displays a winding melodic shape that is constantly varied but recognizable throughout the work—a faster variation of the figure follows immediately in the fifth measure. Another idea that permeates the Quintet is the melodic half step, which first appears in forceful chords punctuating the rapid piano notes. All of the ideas in the second theme area treat this germinal half-step idea, often in lyrical fashion. The distant new key of the second theme, characterized by downward leaps, creates a remarkable tonal contrast with the opening section.

In fact, much of the drama of this movement is inextricably linked with Brahms’s use of harmonic tonal centers. When the second theme area returns in the recapitulation, he employs an especially remote key (F-sharp minor) rather than the home key so as to delay the effect of the return, but also introducing yet another half-step relationship. In the coda, a beautiful calm passage—Brahms indulging in his beloved contrapuntal writing—suggests the possibility of an ending in the major, but this is fiercely obliterated by the minor home key.

The slow, rocking motion of the second movement proves tremendously soothing after the stormy first movement. Its simple ternary form again exploits the same kind of key relationship as the first movement. Brahms also indulges in his fondness for parallel thirds and sixths throughout the movement. When the first section returns it is lovingly rescored.

The Scherzo begins with a shadowy, eerie theme, only to be banished by a joyous if short-lived chordal outburst. So stunning is this effect that the motivic connection between it and the preceding staccato theme in a different meter might be overlooked. Typical and ingenious of Brahms, both of these are also related to the opening melodic motive of the first movement and its variants. Following a noble trio section with broad melody, he repeats the Scherzo literally.

The ending of the Scherzo section—and thus the ending of the movement—shows a marked similarity to the ending of the finale of Schubert’s C major Quintet, D. 956, op. 163, which Brahms came to know well while he was writing his own Quintet. Again it emphasizes the all-important half step. The great English music scholar Donald Francis Tovey wrote that “the savage [half-step] at the end of the scherzo, comes straight from the end of Schubert’s Quintet, and from nowhere else in the whole history of final chords.”

Brahms’s experiment with form for the last movement of the Quintet looks forward to his own First Symphony finale. Here, following Schubert’s lead, he fashioned a sonata form in which the recapitulation also serves as development, the whole being framed by a slow introduction and an immense fast coda. The jolly, folk-tinged first theme, which follows a somber introduction, again shows similarities with the opening theme of the Quintet. The Presto coda, one of the movement’s most remarkable features, encapsulates the entire movement, turning the main theme into a storm of staccato triplets and further varying the second theme. Its final section of syncopations is “straightened out” only at the very end by the forceful closing gesture.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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