Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sunday Classics: Is the radiant A major the "sleeper" among Brahms's piano quartets?


We've heard the fine pianist Ralf Gothóni accompanying baritone Jorma Hynninen in the opening song, "Gute Nacht" ("Good Night"), of Schubert's Winterreise (Winter Journey). Here he plays the first movement of the Brahms A major Piano Quartet (with the repeat) with violinist Ana Chumachenco, violist Ara Gregorian, and cellist Robert Cohen (whom I so enjoyed last month in his new role as cellist of the Fine Arts Quartet), at Helsinki Spring Light Chamber Music 2010.

by Ken

For those who missed Friday night's preview, "Sunny and mellow -- it's Brahms in the key of A," we're finally getting to the second of Brahms's piano quartets, the A major, which was my originally intended subject last September when I started out with a preview highlighting the contrast between it and the first, the G minor, but by Sunday's post had shifted to the G minor Quartet.

As you may guess from the consecutive opus numbers, 25 and 26, these piano quartets were actually conceived in the same outsize burst of inspiration, in another instance of a composer feeling it not only possible but necessary to vent consecutively or overlappingly or even simultaneously contrasting aspects of his musical personality. The classic case for me remains the pair of Beethoven symphonies I've described as musical "fraternal twins," the fatefully volcanic No. 5 and eco-inspirational No. 6 (the Pastoral).

The G minor was the first of the Brahms piano quartets that I came to really love, and I don't think I'm alone there -- though nobody has established himself as a more devoted fan of the piece than Arnold Schoenberg, whose orchestration, at once faithfully Brahmsian and over-the-top Schoenbergian, has understandably become an enormously popular concert piece, perhaps living up after all to his stated hope of conjuring with it a fifth Brahms symphony. I don't love the G minor Quartet any less than ever, but I noticed somewhere along the line that my top allegiance had gradually shifted to the more subtly arresting A major.


In Friday night's preview we focused on the very opening of the A major Quartet, via four very different performances, from which we then heard the entire exposition section of the first movement from those same performances.

For today's recap I thought we would start by isolating the three principal themes.

BRAHMS: Piano Quartet No. 2 in A, Op. 26:
1st movement -- principal themes

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; Guarneri Quartet members (Arnold Steinhardt, violin; Michael Tree, viola; David Soyer, cello). RCA/BMG, recorded Dec. 27, 1967

Now let's hear how these themes fit into the expositio. (Actually, this is as much of this disappointing performance as I want to hear. I was never much of a fan of the Guarneri Quartet, though I came around a little in the quartet's later years. Certainly they didn't bring out the best in Arthur Rubinstein, in this marriage-made-by-record-company-contracts, and the set of the Brahms piano quartets has always seemed to me on the bloated and plodding side. While we're on the subject, immense as is my regard for the Brahmsian credentials of Isaac Stern, I would also advise steering clear of the Stern and Friends piano quartets, in good part owing to the relentlessly plodding piano-playing of "Manny the Butcher" Ax.)

1st movement exposition

[1st theme at start, 2nd theme at 1:52, 3rd theme at 4:26] Arthur Rubinstein, piano; Guarneri Quartet members (Arnold Steinhardt, violin; Michael Tree, viola; David Soyer, cello). RCA/BMG, recorded Dec. 27, 1967



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