Nash Ensemble - Brahms String Quintets

Although settled in the bustling musical centre of Vienna by 1869, Brahms nevertheless favoured more peaceful rural retreats during the summer months. One such venue, Bad Ischl in Upper Austria, proved so inspiring that Brahms returned there a number of times. It was at Ischl that Brahms wrote the F major String Quintet, op.88, and the G major Quintet, op.111 – works separated by a span of eight years, but both composed when Brahms was at the height of his powers.

In the five years before op.88, Brahms had produced his Second Symphony (1877), the Violin Concerto (1878), the ‘Academic Festival’ and ‘Tragic’ Overtures (both 1880) and the Second Piano Concerto (1881). There followed a series of accomplished chamber works: the Piano Trio No.2 and op.88 String Quintet were both completed in 1882; the Cello Sonata No.2, the Violin Sonata No.2 and the Piano Trio No.3 followed in 1886; and the Violin Sonata No.3 (1886–8) appeared not long before the op.111 String Quintet in 1890.

The influence of both historical and folk music was palpable in Brahms’s own works throughout this period. The Haydn Variations (1873) set the precedent for the central movement of Op.88, a set of double variations à la Haydn. The Austrian ländler style and the ‘style hongrois’ also continued to pervade Brahms’s output, with elements of these folk idioms audible in both string quintets. Although Brahms knew Schubert’s great C major Quintet, which uses a second cello, he opted instead to use two violas in both his quintets, creating a richness at the heart of the texture which echoes Mozart’s own love of this sonority.

In other respects, however, there are Schubertian touches, such as the opening theme of the String Quintet Op.88, and Brahms’s use, throughout this work, of ‘mediant’ relationships, a device employed in Schubert’s C major Quintet. Op.88 opens with a folk-like, pastoral Allegro, a movement dappled with late-summer light but punctuated with moments of wistful shadow. Having opened in F, the music modulates up a third to A major for the second subject group – the first of the pervasive ‘mediant’ relationships. Also unexpected is the false recapitulation in the middle of the development. Throughout, the elegant interplay between the instruments traverses delicacy, richness and vibrancy – an impressive range of textures showing Brahms to be entirely at home in this medium. Having already mastered the quartet and sextet genres, Brahms was in the perfect position to mould these forces with the deft precision of one experienced in the intricacies of string ensembles.

For the double variations that comprise the exquisite, enigmatic Grave ed appassionato, Brahms employed the theme from a keyboard sarabande (originally in A) he had written in 1854, alongside material from a gavotte written at around the same time. The effect is one of innovative economy: rather than having separate slow and scherzo movements, Brahms combines the two in a kind of rondo, by alternating the sarabande theme with an Allegretto vivace based on the gavotte. The movement is additionally unusual as it ends in a different key to the one in which it begins. Having begun in C sharp minor, a fascinating series of harmonies brings the movement to a close in A major – representing another ‘mediant’ relationship, as is the juxtaposition of this concluding A with the finale’s key of F.

As in the last movement of Brahms’s Cello Sonata op.38 (and indeed in Beethoven’s third Rasumovsky quartet), the op.88 Quintet’s finale is a fusion of sonata and contrapuntal forms, albeit in a more lighthearted vein. Here, too, we hear Brahms drawing upon the music of the past: the first subject area consists of a fugal exposition in rapid quavers, parodying the Baroque polyphonic style, offset by the expansive melody of the second subject. Although the op.88 Quintet proved to be one of the least popular of Brahms’s chamber works, he described it to Clara Schumann as ‘one of my finest works’, and to his publisher Simrock, ‘You have never before had such a beautiful work from me.’

By the time he came to write the G major Quintet at the age of 57, Brahms had made initial sketches for a Fifth and Sixth Symphony, but had given up, believing it to be time to retire. The Quintet was intended to be his final work – though the skill of clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld would subsequently tempt him back into composition. He declared to his friend Eusebius Mandyczewski: ‘I’ve been tormenting myself for a long time with all kinds of things, a symphony, chamber music and other stuff, and nothing will come of it. Above all, I was always used to everything being clear to me. It seems to me that it’s not going the way it used to. I’m just not going to do any more.’ In the same vein, on sending a final correction to the quintet to Simrock, he wrote: ‘With this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop.’

The op.111 Quintet is considered to be one of Brahms’s most cosmopolitan works, incorporating a variety of idioms from Italian to Slavic. The work opens with a spacious, quasi-orchestral tremolo texture for strings accompanying the cello’s exhilarating, almost Richard Straussian melody – which, claimed Brahms’s biographer Max Kalbeck, had been intended to open a symphony, probably the Fifth. The comparison between Brahms and Strauss is not entirely frivolous: op.111, like op.88, was penned high up in the Austrian Alps, and much of the resultant music has a distinctly Alpine sweep – a quality which would, of course, be explored to the full by Strauss.

The opening cello melody proves problematic, however, in terms of balance; Brahms’s friend the violinist Joseph Joachim argued that it would take ‘three cellists in one’ to be heard above the other four instruments all playing forte; another friend, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, added that the cello ‘must scrape mercilessly to be heard’. Her admiration for the work was, nevertheless considerable; she wrote to Brahms that: ‘Reading it was like feeling spring breezes … He who can invent all this must be in a happy frame of mind. It is the work of a man of thirty.’

The opening of the slow movement, which makes prominent use of the first viola, is redolent of Grieg in its contemplative serenity. It was Grieg who would write cryptically on the day of Brahms’s death: ‘He didn’t outlive himself’ – meaning, perhaps, that Brahms’s abilities remained unfettered even at the end of his life, a statement borne out by the sheer vigour and scope of this late work.

Despite the cosmopolitan nature of op.111 and its conception in the Alps, the Austrian capital exerted its musical influence on Brahms, even at a distance. Like the first movement’s second subject area, which draws upon the Viennese waltz style, the moderate scherzo, marked Un poco allegretto, is a waltz, albeit punctuated by syncopation. This material frames a dolce trio in G major which alternates duets for the violins and violas. In the sonata-rondo finale Brahms’s love of Hungarian gypsy music – the csárdás especially – is abundantly in evidence, and the work concludes with a vibrant coda.

Op.111 was premiered in Vienna on 11 November 1890 by the Rosé Quartet, which would later champion the music of Arnold Schoenberg – who in turn orchestrated Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet and who wrote the essay ‘Brahms the Progressive’ in 1947. The premiere itself was a sensation, but even after the first rehearsal Brahms’s friend the surgeon Theodor Billroth – knowing that Brahms intended to stop composing – wrote: ‘Today I heard enthusiastic shouts, “The most beautiful music he has ever composed!” ... I have often reflected on the subject of what happiness is for humanity. Well, today in listening to your music, that was happiness.’

© Joanna Wyld 2009

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