Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897
Unlike most of his contemporaries in the Romantic era preoccupied with tone poems, opera, poetic character miniatures and other forms of program music, Brahms wrote a generous corpus of absolute chamber music works in the “vintage” classical style. A collection of 26 mature works includes duo sonatas, piano trios, string and piano quartets, piano and string quintets, two sextets and the four final works featuring the clarinet. All 26 works are considered masterworks firmly established in the modern performance repertoire. While this might at first seem rather extraordinary, it is worth remembering that Brahms was a fierce self-critic and quite calculating in terms of what and when he published. It is generally thought that he destroyed more chamber music than he ultimately published and so this is a finely groomed collection that Brahms left for posterity. While all of his works are indeed beloved and deservedly so, his two string quintets enjoy a special regard. Like those of Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, Brahms wrote for two violins, two violas and cello, that is, a string quartet with an added viola often called a “viola quintet.” Compared with his works including the piano and even two of the three string quartets, the quintets have a special ebullience, grace and buoyancy of mood and texture. The scores are especially skillful and rich with subtle invention. To hear them both on a single program is a thrill and a bountiful adventure you will not soon forget.
The first String Quintet in F major, Op. 88 dates from 1882 when Brahms was a mature composer of 49. It approximately marks the halfway point in his chamber music oeuvre. As Brahms wrote by each movement “in the spring of 1882”, the work is sometimes given the nickname “Spring”. The sobriquet applies equally well to the fresh and colorful mood of the music, particularly the outer movements of this three-movement work.
It begins with a warm folk-like theme immediately recognizable as Brahms particularly from his orchestral works. The second theme is a bit more suave rising from the mellow wooden tones of both violas smoothly playing to a triple meter against the more pert duple beats of the other instruments. Between lies a transition that introduces a dotted-note agitation and three different passing motifs that will play a key role in the development section of this first-movement sonata form. The return of the opening themes in the recapitulation brings a luxuriant expansion of material lending this otherwise genial music an even warmer glow.
It is often explained that the middle movement is really two in one: a combination of a lyrical slow movement and a faster triple-meter scherzo in alternating sections. The slow movement section comes first based on an earlier study Brahms made of the Baroque sarabande for solo piano. The sarabande was a stately 17th century Spanish court dance in a triple meter included in innumerable instrumental suites, often characterized by a languorous (even sensuous) melancholy. Brahms gives his a special poignancy by starting in a major key then quickly switching to a minor key thereby deepening its gravity. A chromatic falling motif lends a particularly dour gesture passed about in imitative counterpoint. The sarabande appears thrice, each time subject to subtle variation (including inversions of the theme) and finishing with a particularly morose coda of chorale-like unison motion in long, slow notes. Between these three pillars are two interludes of much brighter character featuring the major mode and lively tempi, first Allegretto vivace then Presto, the “scherzo” sections of this hybrid form.
The third movement finale is a tour-de-force of high-energy contrapuntal magic where, like Mozart and Beethoven before him, Brahms combines fugue and sonata form in a delicious blend of learned and gallant styles. A fugal subject is introduced by the first viola then subsequently imitated by the second violin, first violin and the second viola and cello as a pair. The fugue theme morphs into related theme sung in a vigorous unity of ensemble becoming the proper first theme of the sonata overlay. A sweet melody in lilting triplets from the first violin becomes the second, contrasting theme to complete the sonata principle. The ensuing music comprises fugue, theme, development and thematic variation in a rich tapestry of counterpoint whose fabric traces the contours of the sonata form. The movement rocks to a close with a presto unison dance on a final variation of the main theme. The finale is as ingenious as it is effective, concluding this robust work with a genial and vigorous vitality.