Encore: the 1997 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival CD The Music part 2

Thus it is with Brahms here: The Piano Quartets in G Minor, Op.25 and A Major, Op.26, were published in 1862. Unusual for Brahms at the time, they are large-scale works that did not start out as symphonies—but how different they are from one another! Neither is exactly easy—Brahms, with his sonorous, wide-span chords, rhythmic displacements, and the like, never is—but the G Minor work usually comes off better in performance. Its granitic solidarity and dramatic contrasts are self-evident, and performers usually subordinate such things as the lyrical, lilting second movement to the sterner stuff found elsewhere. But the A Major Quartet's very expansiveness of design and preponderance of a certain geniality are highly misleading, tempting practitioners into an amiable amble without a compensating destination or goal. In reality, the dramatic values are equally present, and even more crucial to the work's architectural design.

The opening pages of this A Major Quartet's first movement provide perfect examples. First there is the tempo marking, Allegro non troppo. For all its qualifying "non troppo," it must remain an Allegro. Then there is Brahms's motive: a quarter note followed by triplets, another quarter, and finally eighth notes with rests punctuating the triplets and eighths—the eighths slurred in instructive contrast to the triplets, and in contrast to the same phrase in the recapitulation, where both groups are slurred. Performers must make this motivic cell crystal-clear, for imprudent and self-indulgent uses of rubato and tempo changes will obscure the basic note values, which are used throughout the long movement. And it is equally important that there be a judicious distinction between the piano's poco f statement of the idea at the beginning, and the three string players' similarly marked restatement at measure 9, which is already on a higher dramatic plateau. When the theme returns fortissimo (ff) at measure 26, one arrives at the highest dramatic peak—as if an entire orchestra were taking over the idea. At the time the first theme is initially stated by the string trio, Brahms has the cello accompany that theme in triplets. But when the piano takes over a few measures later, the cello's pulsations change to sixteenth notes, thereby reinforcing the importance of the rhythmic distinctions already noted.

All this labyrinth of serpentine technical analysis is to permit you, the reader, to get an idea of what the performers are confronted with in this wonderful piece. Somehow they must delve into all the detail, present it accurately, and at the same time keep it in perspective. An unfailing sense of forward direction is absolutely crucial to this long but never long-winded quartet.

Brahms's piano writing here tends to foreshadow the much later B-flat Piano Concerto No.2. In both works, the keyboard part tends to be integrated into the overall texture. The first movement is in expansive sonata form and Brahms calls for a repeat of his long exposition, as in the F Minor Piano Quintet but unlike the other two Piano Quartets.

The Poco adagio has two basic ideas, the first moving over an ostinato of two-note slurs, the second more soaring and impassioned in ringing chords that are taken primarily by the piano at first, and later by the strings. There is also a subordinate episode that has the piano playing ominous pianissimo diminished-seventh arpeggios while the strings haltingly attempt to continue their two-note slurs from the first theme. In the end, the sunny, melodic expansiveness wins out over the anguish.

The critic Eduard Hanslick once expressed surprise that Brahms should have written the Liebeslieder Waltzes, and your annotator has expressed surprise at his surprise. In addition to the solo Waltzes of Op.39, Brahms wrote many waltzlike movements similar to this Poco allegro Scherzo. It begins with a sinuously winding subject played by the strings in unison. The piano joins, still in unison, and presently plays a second legato melody against an ostinato backdrop of staccato syncopes. The second half of the Scherzo proper develops this material and reaches an animato climax. The central trio has an audacious use of leaping octaves and is, in part, derived from the opening theme of the Scherzo. There is an uneventful reprise of the Scherzo proper.

The G Minor Piano Quartet ends with the famous "Gypsy Rondo," and there are Zigeuner elements in this A Major's Finale as well. This is particularly evident at the very beginning, where the piano is playing forte chords in syncopation with the strings' thematic statement. This theme is restated in the piano, the violin introducing some imitation while cello and viola tend to the syncopes. The bridge passage that follows is a variant of material from the first movement. A secondary thematic idea of sorts presents itself, but the real second theme isn't heard until later. Brahms weaves his materials into one of his typically effective symphonic finales, working up a head of steam at the end in memorable fashion.—Harris Goldsmith

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