In 1933 Arnold Schoenberg wrote an influential essay titled “Brahms the Progressive” in which he argues that the older composer was bold and innovative in his use of harmony and in his nearly cinematic musical expressiveness. Schoenberg lauded his composing methods: his thematic concision – the use of short musical phrases as seeds that germinate into full-blown movements – was an aspect of Brahmsian technique that he especially praised (and a technique used by Webern in his serial works).
Schoenberg eventually orchestrated the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, Op.25 almost as if attempting to prove his contention. The resulting hybrid work sounds strangely modern: music transported out of its time and containing many of the qualities of revolutionary 20th century compositions. Here we confront the original piece. The spare, troubling and slightly dissonant opening theme is immediately dissected by Brahms into several musical shards that are reconstructed into building blocks used to assemble the haunting opening movement. These musical seeds recur throughout the work after Brahms has worked his transformative magic on them. In his rigorous pursuit of thematic unity and the artistic compulsion for purity of form, Brahms creates an almost Platonic perfection: hermetically sealed, whole and beautiful. The quartet invites analysis yet defies explanation. Four disparate movements are somehow united into a single work of musical art. The concluding Rondo alla Zingarese becomes a frenzied Hungarian gypsy dance that never seems out of place. Brahms is like a magician who never reveals his sleight-of-hand tricks, who always amazes yet never frustrates his audience.
The third Sonata for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op.108 is the most popular of Brahms’s three violin sonatas. It is in its melodic beauty that most of its appeal to listeners can be found. The brilliantly accomplished writing for the violin, influenced by his long friendship with the great violinist Joseph Joachim, has insured the work’s popularity amongst performers. Although it is a late work – it premiered in Budapest in 1888 – it is filled with a verdant loveliness that can only be described as Schubertian. The opening Allegro is agitated and probing, its urgency only absolved by the haunting second movement cantilena. The third movement is an airy scherzo. It leads to the drama of the final movement whose agitation and uneasiness is slowly transformed into tender resignation.This is the most magisterial of Brahms’s sonatas.
The four soloists in the quartet play with a combination of Gallic suavity and instrumental virtuosity. Their performance is nuanced and sensuous in ways not often associated with the dour Brahms. Pianist Jean-Claude Pennetier is especially expressive in his playing, always probing for the autumnal beauty found in Brahms’s dark and rich sonorities. The other performers are also capable of providing a beautiful sheen to the strings. The sonata performed by pianist Pennetier and Regis Pasquier on violin is also distinguished by a beautiful sonority and an almost effortless expressiveness. If you are partial to Brahms that is profound and intellectually probing in its presentation – the Germanic Brahms – you might be slightly disappointed. This is a sonorous and palpably sensual Brahms, sacrificing some depth in return for a rich, chocolatey beauty of tone. Harmonia mundi has provided a full though slightly compressed sound on these recordings made in the early 1980s. Although an early digital recording, the brittle quality that marred the CDs of the era is not evident. The instruments are clear and deep, allowing the inner voices to shine and the beauty of the music to grab the listener.
– – Mike Birman