Monday, May 9, 2016

Brahms - Piano Quartet No. 2 In A Major, Opus 26

Johannes Brahms was encouraged to travel from his hometown of Hamburg to Vienna by his friends Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim. They thought it was important for someone of Brahms' musical talent to go to the  music capital of German music to expand his horizons in the city where Beethoven and Schubert had lived.

So in 1862 when he was 29 years old, Brahms made the trip to Vienna and took with him two piano quartets that he had written in Hamburg; Quartet No. 1 In G Minor (opus 25) and Quartet No. 2 In A Major (opus 26).  The first piano quartet with its fiery Rondo alla Zingarese finale was an immediate success, while the more introspective second quartet was not as enthusiastically received. Brahms' music may have been a tough nut to crack for the ears of the Viennese listeners that had already turned rather conservative.   He was a composer that revered the composers of the past , but his melodic and harmonic language along with his structural style were quite new. But Brahms wrote in more traditional forms, and that fact was a harbinger of the split in music that was to happen a few years later.  Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz, the main figures in the New Music movement, wrote no chamber music or traditional symphonies, so Brahms by default became the leader of the opposing camp in what was to be called The War Of The Romantics.

Along with Beethoven, Franz Schubert was a major influence on Brahms' compositions.  Schubert was most known for his songs during his lifetime, but he left over 1,000 works in various forms after his death. His music was to become a great influence on many composers, including Brahms who made a study of some of Schubert's chamber music, especially the String Quintet In C Major that was written in 1828, the year of  Schubert's death.

Like Schubert's last works, Piano Quartet No. 2 In A Major, Opus 26 is one of Brahms' longest works and is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo - The movement begins with the solo piano playing the main theme:
This theme is passed to the strings before it is taken up again by the piano in a fortissimo dynamic that retains the lyricism of the theme while increasing the intensity. There are other themes in this exposition, the number depending on who is doing the listening. Throughout, the lyricism is maintained, similar to the unending melodies of Schubert's late works. The exposition is repeated, and then moves smoothly into the development section. Again, the lyricism prevails as Brahms takes the ear through an adventure of key changes while snatches of themes are expanded upon. The recapitulation brings back the themes in seamless transposing of keys. Fragments of the main theme play in the coda as the movement winds down until it ends in forte.

II. Poco Adagio - The only movement of this quartet that is not in sonata form is this one. it is in rondo form. All the strings are muted as the piano plays in a soft register. In what may have been a tribute to his mentor Robert Schumann who had died a few years before this work was written, piano arpeggios add to the expressive coloration of texture as the music drifts to the gentle ending where the arpeggios sweetly accentuate the long notes in the strings.

III. Scherzo: Poco Allegro - A unique movement as the scherzo and trio are both in sonata form. The trio is in D minor, and a novel effect is made by Brahms by the use of grace notes:
The scherzo is repeated and the chromatic arpeggios in the piano make a fitting close to the movement.

IV. Finale: Allegro - The first theme is accented off the beat, and has some elements of Gypsy music as the finale of the 1st quartet, but this time much less frantic. This movement is in sonata form mostly, but has elements of a rondo as well. The music continues in a lyrical vein until the intensity ramps up slightly for a fine finish to the quartet.


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