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Piano Quartet in A major Op.26

Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)

Composer
Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)
Composition Year
1861
Work Movements
1. Allegro non troppo
2. Poco adagio
3. Scherzo: Trio - Poco allegro
4. Finale - Allegro
Artists
Jeremy Menuhin [piano], Marc Coppey [cello], Jennifer Stumm [viola], Hagai Shaham [violin]

Programme Note Writer:
© Francis Humphrys

Brahms in 1860 had been through a turmoil of emotional catastrophe and artistic humiliation that would have destroyed most people. He had been witness to the madness and death of his benefactor, Robert Schumann; there was his passionate involvement and ultimate break with Clara Schumann; and then the bitter fiasco of the Leipzig Gewandhaus premiere of his D minor Concerto, where he was hissed off stage. This last incident showed him how precarious was his life as a vagabond composer and how he could not afford the artistic compromises that normal family life would entail. This conviction led to another romantic disaster when he brutally ended his engagement to Agathe von Siebold. And the final stab in the back came in November 1862 when his hometown, Hamburg, turned down his application to become the principal conductor of the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra and appointed one of his close friends, who had no orchestral experience whatsoever. But his self-confidence was resilient, after the debacle at Leipzig he wrote to Joachim: The failure has made no impression whatever on me. I believe this is the best thing that could happen to one; it forces one to concentrate one’s thoughts and increases one’s courage. After all, I am only experimenting and feeling my way as yet. But the hissing was too much of a good thing, wasn’t it?

Brahms was in Vienna when the news from Hamburg arrived, Vienna the city of music where he could still meet people who had been there for the concerts of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. And so with his dream of a permanent place in his home city forever banished, he allowed himself to be seduced by the magic of Vienna. One of his first concerts there included a performance of this A-major Piano Quartet. It was badly received by the ruthless critic Eduard Hanslick – the themes are insignificant, dry and prosaic, there is continual pulling together and taking apart, preparation without objective, promise without fulfilment – but Clara loved it and it was frequently performed.

The A-major Piano Quartet is a big work in every sense, where Brahms luxuriates in his rich supply of lyrical melodies with an almost symphonic scale of argument. The first movement is enormous and, despite the easy, good-natured effect, the sonata form structure is closely worked. It provides an early example of what Schönberg  called Brahms’ developing variation technique, where no sooner is a theme stated that it begins evolving both melodically and harmonically, often with new keys flowing through it.  So the listener is immediately engaged by the lyricism of the themes and then intellectually as well as emotionally caught up in their continuous development. That said the conventional signposts of exposition, development and so on are respected but not slavishly adhered to. The opening subject also gives immediate notice of the work’s rhythmic complexities, showing two rhythmically distinct halves, which are magnificently balanced throughout the movement. The development shows the symphonic potential of the material, while the recapitulation makes much of the gorgeous second theme.

The Poco Adagio has a languidly delicious, nocturnally muted theme of idealised love that is bleakly invaded by sinister diminished sevenths, arpeggiated in the lowest reaches of the piano, alternating with a two note motif in the strings. This is brushed aside several times but it returns to haunt the F-minor middle section. The hushed perfection of the theme’s last appearance in the coda is one of Brahms’ most idyllic moments.

The Scherzo is in sonata form, yet another new structural venture. The themes are again flowing and light-hearted, most unlike the normal Brahms Scherzo. The Trio is a canon on a slight rhythmic figure, whose precision builds up a powerful source of energy. This energy is released with the Hungarian-style theme that presides over the sonata form Finale. This movement takes its time in a magisterial way creating a mood of relaxed strength that easily balances the length and argument of the first movement within the Quartet as a whole. The Hungarian theme is finally allowed to break out of this mood and let itself go in the wild prestissimo coda.

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Piano Quartet in A major Op.26

Composer: Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)
Performance date: Friday 3rd July 2009
Venue: Bantry House Library, Bantry, Co. Cork, Ireland,

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Composer Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)
Work Title Piano Quartet in A major Op.26
Composition Year 1861
Work Movements 1. Allegro non troppo
2. Poco adagio
3. Scherzo: Trio - Poco allegro
4. Finale - Allegro
Artist(s) Jeremy Menuhin [piano], Marc Coppey [cello], Jennifer Stumm [viola], Hagai Shaham [violin]
Performance Date Friday 3rd July 2009
Performance Venue Bantry House Library, Bantry, Co. Cork, Ireland,
Event Main Evening Concert
Duration 00:45:00
Recording Engineer Anton Timoney, RTÉ lyric fm
Instrumentation Category Piano Quartet/Piano Quintet
Instrumentation vn, va, vc, pf
Programme Note Writer © Francis Humphrys

Brahms in 1860 had been through a turmoil of emotional catastrophe and artistic humiliation that would have destroyed most people. He had been witness to the madness and death of his benefactor, Robert Schumann; there was his passionate involvement and ultimate break with Clara Schumann; and then the bitter fiasco of the Leipzig Gewandhaus premiere of his D minor Concerto, where he was hissed off stage. This last incident showed him how precarious was his life as a vagabond composer and how he could not afford the artistic compromises that normal family life would entail. This conviction led to another romantic disaster when he brutally ended his engagement to Agathe von Siebold. And the final stab in the back came in November 1862 when his hometown, Hamburg, turned down his application to become the principal conductor of the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra and appointed one of his close friends, who had no orchestral experience whatsoever. But his self-confidence was resilient, after the debacle at Leipzig he wrote to Joachim: The failure has made no impression whatever on me. I believe this is the best thing that could happen to one; it forces one to concentrate one’s thoughts and increases one’s courage. After all, I am only experimenting and feeling my way as yet. But the hissing was too much of a good thing, wasn’t it?

Brahms was in Vienna when the news from Hamburg arrived, Vienna the city of music where he could still meet people who had been there for the concerts of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. And so with his dream of a permanent place in his home city forever banished, he allowed himself to be seduced by the magic of Vienna. One of his first concerts there included a performance of this A-major Piano Quartet. It was badly received by the ruthless critic Eduard Hanslick – the themes are insignificant, dry and prosaic, there is continual pulling together and taking apart, preparation without objective, promise without fulfilment – but Clara loved it and it was frequently performed.

The A-major Piano Quartet is a big work in every sense, where Brahms luxuriates in his rich supply of lyrical melodies with an almost symphonic scale of argument. The first movement is enormous and, despite the easy, good-natured effect, the sonata form structure is closely worked. It provides an early example of what Schönberg  called Brahms’ developing variation technique, where no sooner is a theme stated that it begins evolving both melodically and harmonically, often with new keys flowing through it.  So the listener is immediately engaged by the lyricism of the themes and then intellectually as well as emotionally caught up in their continuous development. That said the conventional signposts of exposition, development and so on are respected but not slavishly adhered to. The opening subject also gives immediate notice of the work’s rhythmic complexities, showing two rhythmically distinct halves, which are magnificently balanced throughout the movement. The development shows the symphonic potential of the material, while the recapitulation makes much of the gorgeous second theme.

The Poco Adagio has a languidly delicious, nocturnally muted theme of idealised love that is bleakly invaded by sinister diminished sevenths, arpeggiated in the lowest reaches of the piano, alternating with a two note motif in the strings. This is brushed aside several times but it returns to haunt the F-minor middle section. The hushed perfection of the theme’s last appearance in the coda is one of Brahms’ most idyllic moments.

The Scherzo is in sonata form, yet another new structural venture. The themes are again flowing and light-hearted, most unlike the normal Brahms Scherzo. The Trio is a canon on a slight rhythmic figure, whose precision builds up a powerful source of energy. This energy is released with the Hungarian-style theme that presides over the sonata form Finale. This movement takes its time in a magisterial way creating a mood of relaxed strength that easily balances the length and argument of the first movement within the Quartet as a whole. The Hungarian theme is finally allowed to break out of this mood and let itself go in the wild prestissimo coda.