Monday, June 28, 2010

Brahms' chamber music [1]

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the third and fourth instalments, I re-examine the chamber music of German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), after Bach my favourite composer of all time. This first of the two deals with his works in the period 1854-1880.

My version: Katchen/Suk/Starker (Decca, 1968, 36 min)
Brahms' first chamber music, and he immediately tackled a difficult combination with the piano trio (piano, violin, cello). The Allegro has some great melodies with the piano not too dominant (a clear risk in this set-up), and goes through a range of emotions. The quirky scherzo fits very well to relieve the tension, with some more excellent tunes, somewhat reminiscent of his Hungarian dances. The adagio is good, but just a little less inspired than the first two movements. With an Allegro movement, the composition ends in style, tuneful and rhythmic. The version we usually here is his own revision of 1891.

My version: Raphael Ensemble (Hyperion, 1988, 34 min)
Right from the first notes, this luscious sextet (two each of violin, viola and cello) unfolds as a highly melodious work, with sadness lurking behind the textures. The andante is an intriguing set of variations, at times forceful, at times wistful, at all times delightful. A fun short scherzo lightens the mood for a moment, and a Schubertian rondo (the weakest movement) brings the composition to a close.

My version: Domus (Virgin, 1988, 42 min)
There is a symphony waiting to break out of this piano quartet - no wonder Schoenberg orchestrated it. This is accessible music, but not light by any means. After the beefy Allegro, the lovely Intermezzo inspired by Clara Schumann, and the restrained Andante, the final Rondo pulls out all the stops as Brahms channels both quirky and sentimental Hungarian themes in his inimatible way, one of his best creations. All in all, a strong and confident work that cemented his reputation as the logical successor of Beethoven.

My version: Domus (Virgin, 1988, 49 min)
One of the most beautiful intro's in his repertoire quickly gives way to perfect interplay between strings and piano, ranging from tender to passionate and back. The slow second movement initially has a nocturnal feeling to it, giving way to more dramatic developments in-between. The scherzo is not bad but not outstanding either. The quirky finale is full of rhythm and even foreshadows the likes of Stravinsky and Bartok. Overall, a beautiful work but it falls just short of the amazing first and third.

My version: Jando/Kodaly Quartet (Naxos, 1990, 37 min)
Brahms' only composition for this combination, and he arrived there starting writing for string quintet, then switching to a sonata for two pianos, before settling on the work as we know it. The opening Allegro already demonstrates the perfect balance in this piece between piano and string quartet. The Andante is suitably restrained, serene even, and the Scherzo lively but somewhat nervous. The Finale is by far the best movement, right from the slow introduction to its furious interplay. In the end, a very accomplished composition, but lacking the memorable tunes to rate it amongst the best.

My version: Raphael Ensemble (Hyperion, 1988, 40 min)
An almost subdued, at times hauntingly beautiful, at times beautifully haunting, first movement sets the scene for one of Brahms' greatest creations. The Scherzo is sometimes playful, sometimes melancholic, the Adagio presents a set of variations, reminding us of his first sextet. The final movement, a relative weak point of the first sextet, lets the sun break through and brings this remarkable work to a melodic close.

Cello Sonata 1 in E minor (op.38, 1862–65)
My version: Harrell/Askenazy (Decca, 1980, 25 min)
The piano and cello work well together here, none dominating. The opening Allegro non troppo has a melancholic feeling to it, which of course suits the cello does fine. Brahms foregoes a slow movement, and chooses a quirky Adagietto instead, which works very well. The fugue-rich final Allegro is not the strongest part of the work, but overall, one of the best cello sonatas in the romantic repertoire.

My version: Hoegner/Binder/Dolezal (Decca, 1982, 29 min)
The combination horn, violin and piano is sufficiently rare to warrant interest in this work even if it had not been by Brahms. The opening Andante is accomplished, though nothing special, but the Scherzo is playful and melodic, with the horn having a field day. The pensive Adagio seems a bit out of place after this frolicking, as beautiful as the elegiac horn lines are (the movement was inspired by the recent death of his mother). The final has a jolly hunt-like atmosphere, occasionally reminiscent in some ways (if not in style) of Mozart concertos for this instrument. All in all, not his very best, but pretty good.

My version: Melos Quartett (DG, 1988, 32 min)
In my memory the two string quartets of op.51 were not very impressive - listening to the first again more or less confirmed this. Accomplished works but lacking the brilliance of so many of his other compositions. The opening Allegro lacks memorable themes, the Romance fares somewhat better but still meanders too much. The melancholic Allegretto is easily the best movement, and the closing Allegro is close behind. These two movements save the composition.
My version: Melos Quartett (DG, 1988, 35 min)
Compared to the first, the second is a pleasant surprise, better than I remembered. The first movement is a very melodious Allegro, with typical Brahmsian lines. The andante and minuetto continue in the same vein, and the final Allegro brings the work to a satisfactory conclusion. Far from the quality of his best chamber music (and inferior to the quartets of say Dvorak), but clearly better than the first.

My version: Domus (Virgin, 1988, 34 min)
It took Brahms over 20 years to finish this very personal work, in which his impossible love for Clara Schumann shines through. The opening Allegro and the following Scherzo are as sad as uptempo movements can be, and the wonderfully melodic Andante predictably emphasizes that mood. The final Allegro does not offer much relieve either. This a resigned masterpiece, and one of the highlights of this re-discovery tour for me.

String Quartet 3 in B flat major (Op.67, 1875)
This is the only work in Brahms' chamber music that I have never heard.

My version: Perlman/Ashkenazy (EMI, 1985, 27 min)
Brahms embarked fairly late on this combination, but with great success. A beautiful melodious first movement, a meandering sad adagio, and a final movement that introduces tragic elements to reflect the death of Robert Schumann and Brahms' impossible love for Clara Schumann. An exquisite composition.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:

Hors concours: None
Essential: Piano Quartet 1, Piano Quartet 3, String Sextet 2
Important: Cello Sonata 1, Horn trio, Piano Quartet 2, String sextet 1, Violin Sonata 1
Good to have: Piano Quintet, Piano Trio 1, String Quartet 2
Not required: String Quartet 1
Unrated: String Quartet 3