SCHUMANN: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47; BRAHMS: Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25; Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 60: Andante – Mozart Piano Quartet – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, multichannel SACD (2+2+2) MDG 943 1712-6, 74:32 [Distr. by E1] ****:
The Schumann Piano Quartet is often paired with the Piano Quintet. It’s a duo that makes a lot of sense together on disc, but it’s been done, as they say. The pairing of Schumann’s only piano quartet with the first of Brahms’s three is much rarer yet invites interesting comparisons and contrasts. As far as contrasts are concerned, Schumann’s work is a mostly bright, optimistic work, while Brahms’s is a darker, more brooding piece up to the brilliant Rondo alla Zingarese finale. Schumann’s Quartet, which followed right on the heels of his Piano Quintet, seems a more intimate, light-spirited work, as if the reduction in force by a single violin had made a truly material difference.
And maybe it had: while there is an almost symphonic sweep to the opening and closing movements of the Quintet. By comparison, there’s a mercurial lightness to the Quartet. Maybe that’s why it has attracted less enthusiasm than the earlier work. Some critics say that one of Schumann’s failures in his chamber works with piano, to let the piano lead too much, is especially pronounced in the Quartet. I don’t buy that argument; I don’t hear this disparity between the two works, and I find them almost equally appealing in their different ways. A similarity between the Quartet and Quintet worth noting, however, is that both works inspired Schumann to some bravura contrapuntal writing: the coda of the finale in the Quintet includes a much-admired double fugue, while fugal writing dominates each repetition of the first theme of the Quartet finale.
A point of comparison or at least connection between the Schumann and Brahms quartets is mostly conjectural on my part. Brahms’s three piano quartets were all written around the same time; all were given first performances in 1861. However, the Third in C-sharp Minor was considered lacking by Brahms and was put aside, then fiddled with by the composer until a definitive version, now in C minor, was performed and published as Op. 60 in 1875. It’s sometimes called the “Werther” Quartet because of Brahms’s oblique references, in his letters to his friend Heinrich Billroth and his publisher Fritz Simrock, to Goethe’s antihero Young Werther, who commits suicide over the unattainable love of an older woman. The references may be oblique, but the referent in Brahms’s case is not. Brahms was thinking of Clara Schumann, the beloved and unattainable older woman in his own life.
While Brahms never divulged any programmatic information about or provided emotional insight into the First Piano Quartet, I’ve come to consider it a different sort of response to the same spiritual dilemma outlined in the dark and despairing Op. 60. There’s almost a stunned quietude about much of the First Quartet, at least until the finale. There’s a bit of Sturm und Drang in the development of the first movement, and a contrasting elegiac calm over the major-key third movement. But this work is so far removed from the passionate outcry of Op. 60 that for me it’s hard to believe they were written in close time order unless I imagine them as different sides of the same coin. Maybe the First Piano Quartet is Brahms’s equivalent of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, where a sad current reality dogs the composer until he decides to lose himself in the happy celebratory music of the people. In Brahms’s case, this is the Gypsy music he was so fond of and mimicked so well.
Then again, Brahms may simply have been lightening the load imposed on listeners by the long complex sonata-form first movement. Whatever the truth about the piece, it’s justly famous, not only for that knockout finale, which is played with utmost dash and brio by the Mozart Piano Quartet. Playing before a live audience must have fueled the breakneck excitement of their performance. It’s virtuoso display, with accuracy and power as well as speed, but I think both here and in the Schumann finale the playing is just a little too driven. The cut of Schumann’s first melody is a bit too angular as well, not yielding enough, and the mechanical approach almost wrecks the mood. However, this is mostly compensated for by some lovely, inward playing in the second melody of the Schumann, the melancholy central theme of the Brahms. Overall, the effect is so brilliant in the finales, and the Mozart Quartet is so in tune with the varied moods of the other movements, that I count my objections as small ones.
The concert from which this recording is taken also provided a wonderfully apropos addendum in the slow movement from Brahms’s Op. 60 Quartet, another elegiac movement that’s like a farewell to something greatly loved.
The live recording from what must be a fairly resonant hall nonetheless has good presence plus a convincing sense of depth. String tone, including imposing bass notes, is good though the piano tone has a slight pinginess at the top end, as is often the case in resonant locales. But now I’m just nitpicking in order to fulfill my critical mission. Aside from a few minor quibbles, this is a distinguished recording that should bring real enjoyment.
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