BRAHMS Johannes, Piano Quintet in F minor Op.34

Allegro non troppo
Andante, un poco adagio
Scherzo. Allegro
Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo – Presto non troppo

In 1862, Brahms sent Clara Schumann the incomplete manuscript of a quintet for two violins, viola and two cellos. He must have been delighted by her reaction: ‘What richness in the first movement … I can’t tell you how moved I am by it, and how powerfully gripped. And what an Adagio – it sings and sounds blissful right up to the last note!’ A few months later, he asked the great violinist Joseph Joachim for his opinion. He was very positive about the work, but mentioned that ‘the instrumentation is not energetic enough to my ears to convey the powerful rhythmic convulsions.’ Brahms rewrote the piece as a Sonata for Two Pianos (and destroyed the manuscript of the string quintet version). Clara Schumann gave the first performance with the conductor Hermann Levi. She felt something was missing in the two-piano version: ‘Please, dear Johannes, do agree just this time, and rework the piece once more.’ So he did, producing a version that combined the best of both earlier versions. The result is one of Brahms’s greatest chamber works. But while it was immediately recognised as an important new piece, there was hardly a stampede to play it in public. It was performed privately (with Clara Schumann) in November 1864, and published in December 1865, but a Viennese première in February 1866 was abandoned at the last moment. There were early performances in Leipzig (22 June 1866), and Paris (24 March 1868). It had to wait until 1875 for a public hearing in Vienna. It subsequently enjoyed considerable success, notably when Clara Schumann, Joachim and others played it in London on 3 April 1876. The first movement opens with a dark-hued theme in octaves that soon develops into a turbulent drama – the music remaining in a minor key for the second theme. The slow movement has a radiance that provides a complete contrast with what has gone before. The Scherzo begins uneasily, full of suppressed energy and tense syncopations, but then bursts out into C major, and its central Trio section is one of Brahms’s most rapturous themes. The finale begins slowly, brooding and mysterious, until the main fast theme emerges. This movement’s coda hurtles towards an intense, uncompromising finish.

Nigel Simeone © 2011

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