(Re)imagining a Brahms piano quintet—without piano

Brahms first scored what was to become his Quintet in F minor, Op.34, for piano, two violins, viola, and cello for two violins, one viola, and two cellos—no piano. The scoring and perhaps the music was inspired by Schubert's similarly piano-less, two-cello Quintet in C major. The original Brahms score has been lost.

Cellist Terry King, a protégé of the great Gregor Piatigorsky and the first American-born teacher to teach a Tchaikovsky Competition Gold Medal winner, long wondered what the original quintet sounded like. He sent me this quote, from Clara Schumann, from just after she read Brahms's original score, playing all the parts on her piano. "What a world of strength and richness there is in the first movement, how the first theme takes hold of one at once," Schumann wrote. "How beautifully it is scored for the instruments! I can see them bowing. Dreamy at times and then the accelerando and [the] wild, passionate ending—it has taken hold of me. And how rapturously the Adagio sings one long melody from start to finish! I play it over and over again and never wish to stop."

King decided that he would recreate the original version of the Brahms quintet. "I had an idealized concept of what Clara had heard," King told me, "and I needed to verify it. In reconceiving the Quintet back to its original form, I was extracting the basic sonority of a two-cello quintet from the music itself."

As a first step, King deconstructed an interim version for two pianos. Working from that version, he created a version with the original scoring. "I assumed that if the two-piano version was a transcription of the string quintet," King explained, "then what was added would have been pianistic elaborations, mostly in the form of doublings and the natural filling out of some of the harmony. There were only minor differences in dynamics and expression."

On January 15 and 16, 2023, in the midst of a blizzard in a small suburb west of Boston, violinists Alan Snow and Miclen LaiPang, violist Emily Lane, and cellists Tyler Michael James and Ignacy Gaydamovich recorded King's reconstructed score, for the audiophile label HDTT—short for "High-Definition Tape Transfers." The recording is set to be released in late 2023. The recording engineer was John Gladney Proffitt. I asked him to share his thoughts about the project.

"The musically gratifying part sprang from the synergy of this new work with the five young musicians. The respect and love of the players for their coaching staff—Terry, Laura Bossert, and Patrick Shaugnessy—was manifest in the dedication, passion, and sheer virtuosity of their playing of this difficult (and quite literally new) music. It was new in terms of departure from received tradition, unexpected voicing, and thematic presentations. The string sonorities and the absence of the expected piano surprised me at first, but in short order, this work grew on me as being totally idiomatic and 'in the spirit' of Brahms. I did not miss the piano one bit!"

"Recording a chamber ensemble of five players," continued Proffitt, who has made a career of recording major orchestras, "requires a microphone placement different from that of an orchestra. Instead of three widely spaced omnidirectional mikes, which would lose focus with a group as small as a quintet, I used three mikes on a single stand for the main pickup: two Neumann KM84 cardioid condensers in a modified ORTF mounting, aimed to the left and right of the ensemble and comprising channels 1 and 2 of the surround sound mix; and for the center channel 3, a Peluso P83 omni condenser slightly lower than the ORTF array and aimed at the center of the ensemble. As I would do for an orchestra,

I then deployed two widely spaced omnis, on high stands, to the left and right and about 20' back from the musicians. The wood floor, ceiling, and plaster walls of Bemis Hall allowed the pickup of a focused, warm, and intimate sound of the five string players, very complimentary to the rich romanticism of the Brahms."

Audio restoration engineer John Haley, who attended the Monday sessions with HDTT owner Bob Witrak, admitted that he was concerned at first by the acoustical tile on the side walls of the small hall and what appeared to be a dearth of hall sound. "However, once we heard the instruments in the space," Haley said, "our concern abated, as they had a nice, lively presence. When John played us some recorded samples on his headphones, the balance seemed wonderful, with a clarity and brilliance that was even better than what we were hearing where we were seated. So we have high expectations for a great-sounding recording. ... [W]e were extremely impressed with the quality of the string players, all wonderful. Terry knew exactly what he was doing."

After the sessions, King described the "great satisfaction" he felt on hearing the piano quintet "with a deep, powerful bass. As a piano quintet, it has almost a concerto grosso, piano-versus-strings feel. It is the easiest way to juxtapose the group. But when Brahms did that with the two pianos, you can see in places like the Scherzo that this kind of playing for pianos is just fine, whereas for an all-strings group, it's not a walk in the park."

"It was really exciting," cellist James said. "It isn't often that you get to perform and interpret new Brahms. The warmth and sustaining quality of the cello quintet format lent itself to a different interpretation, and the arrangement was so well written that our musical ideas blossomed organically."

James complimented Proffitt for being "a wonderful and patient engineer, who provided thoughtful feedback throughout our sessions and was as committed to the project as we were. His ears were specially tuned to making sure there was quality sound from beginning to end."

kai's picture

I‘d liked to listen to this recording, but it does not seem to be released yet.
So, this report is a little ahead of time.

kai's picture

Any reason why my last posting was deleted?

John Atkinson's picture
kai wrote:
Any reason why my last posting was deleted?

Sorry, we don't know. We are investigating the matter.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor & Part-time Web Monkey, Stereophile