The five major Brahms string works receive vivid, boldly evocative readings in classic performances.
BRAHMS: String Quartet No. 2 in a, Op. 51, No. 2; String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major, Op. 67; String Quartet No. 1 in c, OP. 51, No. 1; String Quintet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 88; String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111 – The Budapest String Q./ Walter Trampler, viola – Praga Digitals PRD 250 348 (2 CDs), TT: 2:28:29 (2/24/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS]
For many collectors of chamber music recordings, the Brahms String Quartets, as played by The Budapest String Quartet for CBS (LP, SL 225) from November and December 1963, represented a milestone for their store of great music. Generally, the level of execution of the group – originally founded in 1917 – still glowed with amber power, but weaknesses infected the intonation of Joseph Roisman, first violin. The ensemble would disband at last in 1967.
The set opens with the Brahms a minor Quartet, Op. 51, No. 2 (1873), a melancholy paean to Schubert, whose own quartet in the same key holds an ethereal, doomed atmosphere. Brahms utilizes in the second violin (Sascha Schneider) the patented F-A-E motif he drew from Joachim, an acronym for “free but lonely.” The first movement evolves through the presence of triplets, which for Brahms may signify hope. So, too, the excursion into the relative C Major adds something of renewed possibilities. From the composer’s old association with violinist Remenyi, we hear the hints of gypsy music, another source of spiritual resilience. In movement two, rife with marcato chromatic passages, the first violin and the cello (Mischa Schneider) share a potent canon. Brahms marks the third movement Quasi menuetto, delicately elegiac and gypsy in affect. The music explodes briefly into 2/4, Allegro vivace, in the form of variations. Like his predecessor Haydn, Brahms has the Budapest play all’ungarese in a powerful rhythm favored by the composer of The Seasons. Again, like Haydn, the form merges rondo and variations cleverly. The viola (Boris Kroyt), too, has his acerbic moments in the sun. The recapitulation seems to overflow with rapt, new ideas, a Hungarian dance driven to fever pitch. The ritornello comes back in the coda, piu vivace, with the elan of unabashed invention.
Praga then offers the 1876 Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 67, decidedly homage to Haydn. Rustic in flavor, the music opens Vivace in 6/8 in three themes that intimate robust, peasant sensibilities. The presence of hunting calls may pay debts to Mozart’s “Hunt” Quartet in B-flat. While a sense of dark labor permeates the Op. 51 pair of quartets, here a sense of imaginative freedom reigns. Played with lyrical tenderness.
The ensuing Andante progresses as a sweet aria da capo that bears a slightly darker contrasting theme. A coda of eleven-bar leads, agitato, to an intermezzo Allegretto non troppo, in which Kroyt’s lush viola holds principal sway, autumnal and valedictory. The last of the three themes of this movement has the accompanying instruments con sordino, an intimate mood sustained in the Trio section in the form of a folk dance with arpeggios. In the true Haydn manner, Brahms invents an Allegretto and eight variations as a finale, a simple dance tune touched by irony. Ever resourceful, the tune gathers concertante power, the introductory vivace having reappeared in variation seven. The last variant expounds the theme and then yields to a large coda, a festive, rustic dance that has something of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony about it. While my favorite rendition lies with the Primrose Quartet, this effective realization works its own magic.
Disc 2 opens with the composer’s initial effort (1873) in the string quartet medium, in c minor, Op. 51, No. 1, where the reigning model stands with Beethoven, especially when Brahms conceives his score symphonically. The Budapest players capture the gloomy, intensely restless character of the music’s opening, in agitated eighth notes. Though the music modulates to E-flat, the mood offers little consolation. Drum figures, leaping motifs, each contributes to a passion that Brahms would expand further in his First Symphony. A degree of unity informs the second movement, a Romanze in A-flat Major whose rhythmic kernels suggest the rural atmosphere of hunting horns; but the middle section and frequent harmonic shifts imbue in even this relatively bucolic utterance a sense of unease. In the third movement Allegretto molto, violinist Roisman and violist Kroyt engage in a kind of intermezzo that juxtaposes two minor keys, in c and f, and the tension exists throughout. Between various pulsation and syncopations, the music assumes a fantasy element, a disturbing angst. The trio section, such as it is, bestows some ephemeral light into an otherwise darkling plain. Here, the drone elements become richly evocative in the (F Major) Schumann sense of nostalgia. For the Finale of his first quartet, Brahms challenges Mozart for contrapuntal ingenuity, even exploiting the theme of the first movement as one of six developed ideas. As expressively impulsive as it is strictly controlled, the music creates a number of concertante moments for the several instruments. Moving through E-flat, the music soars late into C Major, a move Brahms may have coveted in the Fifth Symphony on his venerated Beethoven.
Brahms conceived his two string quintets eight years apart – 1882 and 1890 – in an identical, bucolic setting at Bad Ischl, the spa near Salzburg. The dance figures of the second movement of the F Major Quintet, Op. 88 derive from a sarabande and gavotte Brahms had written in 1855. For this historic performance of January 1958, the Budapest has esteemed Walter Trampler (1915-1997) to fill out the second viola part. He, along with his colleagues, imbues the “Spring” character of the work, warm and outgoing, a kind of posthumous tribute to Schumann. In the first movement, the two violas play in triple meter against the duple meter of their colleagues.
The middle movement likes to alternate major and minor tonalities, even in dark counterpoint. The hearty presence of Mischa Schneider’s cello adds to the richness of the evolving texture. The two interludes – Allegro vivace and Presto – correspond to Schumann’s flair for two trios in his symphonic scherzi. The last movement demonstrates Brahms at age forty-nine, in full command of his compositional craft, combining fugue procedures with sonata form in a blend of musical styles. Brahms may well have used the third of the Beethoven “Rasumovsky” Quartets, Op. 59, No. 3 as his model. As contrapuntal as a Bach piece, the procession leads with the viola, followed by the second violin, first violin, and the second viola and cello as a pair. A lovely melody in triplets arises from the midst and bustle of such “academic” procedures. The final appearance, or variation, of the tune comes at us in presto unison, a dance assertive of hearty personal optimism.
The Op. 111 the critic Hanslick praised for its concision and vitality of spirit. Mischa Schneider’s cello bears all the tests of his virtuosity in the opening movement, uttering his tune against oscillating chords. The highly-condensed accents and agogic shifts owe much to the composer’s knowledge of Renaissance choral procedure, especially in Palestrina. The lovely passages in B-flat warrant the price of admission. The general lyricism of the work has often been ascribed to the composer’s admiration of Mendelssohn, whose c minor Piano Trio and Op. 87 Quintet Brahms admired without apology. The d minor Adagio enjoys a valedictory emotion – sometimes almost static in its quietude – quite haunting. Marked Un poco allegretto, the third movement gives us another of the Brahms ‘intermezzos,” this in Mozart’s tragic key of g minor. A melancholy idyll, the music eludes easy verbal analogy, but we might look to the third movement of the F Major Symphony for a similar sensibility. Although Brahms wishes G Major to be his final destination, he opens his finale: Vivace ma non troppo presto in b minor. Folk-like and capricious in a gypsy mode, the music often resembles similar bucolic efforts from Dvorak. The Trampler viola plies a hurdy-gurdy effect, but the Brahms penchant for syncopes and counterpoint soon render the surface naivete learned in style. The five players, having become fully energized, literally gallop to a resounding coda that concludes a most gratifying rendition of this late Brahms masterpiece.