Recorded on 12/02/2007, uploaded on 01/07/2011
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
Though officially his first essay in the genre, the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor was, like many of the other genres Brahms mastered, preluded by a period of intensive study and aborted attempts that made possible the genesis of a masterpiece. Prior to its composition, he worked extensively on a rather unorthodox quartet in C-sharp minor. The fragments of this work would reemerge later on, in a different key and with drastic changes in form, as his Third Piano Quartet. Leaving this incomplete quartet, Brahms likely conceived the G minor quartet around 1857 and completed it in 1861. Contrary to its incomplete predecessor, it follows a far more conventional four-movement design, yet is not lacking in surprises. It was these irregularities, however, that perhaps caused the work to receive rather mixed reviews, not only from critics, but those close to Brahms as well. Clara Schumann, who played the piano part at the premiere, thought the work somewhat undisciplined. She even complained of the first movement being too permeated with the key of the dominant rather than the tonic. For a while, the quartet’s extravagancies kept it within the realm of the connoisseurs. However, an orchestral arrangement made by Arnold Schoenberg in 1937 brought the work to the attention of the wider concert-going public. Since then, the original quartet version has come to be admired as one of Brahms’s finest chamber works.
The opening Allegro is one of the most serious and introspective sonata forms Brahms composed. It is also unique in its seemingly unbalanced structure. The outer sections of movement are expansive, with the recapitulation showing a disregard for the order set out in the exposition and goes so far as to even introduce an entirely new theme. In sharp contrast, the development is terse with a stern concentration. The C minor second movement Brahms originally thought of as a scherzo, yet it has more in common with his later intermezzi, particularly those that appeared in three of his four symphonies. At first a hushed and haunting movement, the mood brightens and becomes livelier in the A-flat major Trio. The E-flat major third movement, marked Andante con moto, is lyrical with arching melodic lines and tinged with a tragic seriousness. It forms the emotional climax of the work allowing for the near reckless abandon of the tongue-in-cheek finale. Composed in the tradition of “gypsy” finales dating back to Haydn, the last movement, somewhat erroneously entitled “Rondo alla Zingarese,” begins with a vigorous but off-kilter theme made up of three-bar phrases. Beaming with virtuosity, the finale seems to almost entirely negate the seriousness of the preceding movement, particularly the stern nature of the first movement. Even a brilliant piano cadenza towards the end of the movement seems to poke a little fun at Liszt. Joseph DuBose
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