Budapest String Quartet & Walter Trampler
Recorded: 1958 New York
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Brahms left us two string quintets (for two violins, two violas, and cello), both mature works framed by the Quintet for piano and strings of his youth and the Quintet for clarinet and strings of his old age.
The grouping of five stringed instruments had, however, interested him from his earliest period of production: before he was thirty he had composed a first string quintet that was never published and that later became, successively, the Sonata for two pianos, Op. 34b and the Quintet for piano and strings, Op. 34.
It was in 1882, when he was forty-nine, that Brahms composed his String Quintet No. 1 in F major, Op. 88 - thus a contemporary of both his trio for piano and strings No. 2, Op. 87 and his Symphony No. 3. He finished the quintet during the summer he spent in Ischl with his friend Billroth, who immediately expressed his enthusiasm in a letter to Clara Schumann: "Each movement bears the mark of spring, and indeed the whole bathes in vernal well-being... Splendid harmonies! Joy! All the beauty of a Raphael!" Brahms, too, was not dissatisfied for once, since he wrote his publisher Simrock, "I have never heard anything so beautiful coming from me!" String Quintet No. 1 came to be known as the Fruhlingsquintett precisely because of the spring-like preshness pervading it from the very first movement.
The latter is an Allegro non troppo ma con brio in sonata form using a large number of themes that appear with surprising, delightful spontaneity: the two main subjects are a happy, rustic theme and a warm, melodic one, but they are joined by a whole series of extremely diverse, rhythmic secondary ideas. After this extraordinarily fertile exposition the development is strictly based on the two main subjects. The recapitulation is symmetrical with the exposition and is embellished with a generous coda.
The second movement, Grave ed appassionato, Allegretto vivace, Tempo I, Presto, and Grave, in C sharp minor and A major, is a typical example of a procedure used by Brahms from time to time to telescope two movements into a single one (Opus 88 is one of the composer's rare three-movement works: in it the slow movement and the scherzo are fused into a single central movement). What we have here are three slow sections between which are twice inserted (like two "trios') two lively interludes, the first marked Allegretto and the second Presto. The opening Grave is built on a melodic, admirably but darkly expressive theme first presented by the cello. The Allegretto is an episode the joy of which is slightly veiled in a pastoral mood and the rhythm of a sicilienne. The Grave then reappears with several changes. The luminous, exuberant Presto acts as a variant to the Allegretto. And, to conclude, the Grave comes back, with the first violin's rising arpeggio adding a final ray of light. Despite its diversity and its curiously broken discourse, the movement is remarkably unified and, like the first movement, is characterized by generous, flexible improvisation.
A completely different impression is produced by the first measures of the closing Allegro energico, the fugal style and scholarly mood of which almost risk counteracting the poetic charm of the earlier movements. Nonetheless, such procedures as strict sonata form superimposed on fugal writing contribute to a new elan in the pulsing rhythm of a buoyant yet orderly dance; two subjects oppose and complement each other, the first square and rhythmic, the second cantabile and lyrical. Freedom reigns here: during the development four new secondary ideas are introduced, and the composer handles them with his usual contrapuntal mastery. Rigor returns with the recapitulation, which is exactly symmetrical with the exposition, but to it is added a Presto coda forty measures long that sounds like a second development, in which the main theme of the initial fugato gains new rhythmic thrust.
Like its predecessor, String Quintet No, 2 in G major. Op. III was composed during a vacation in Ischl, this time in July 1890 after a dazzling trip to Italy. Brahms had been thinking for several months of writing a companion-piece to Opus 88. The generous, ample style of Opus III is at noticeable variance, however, with that of the works composed just prior to it. The style of Brahms' old age is now approaching. Although this quintet represents a triumph of melody, it at first disconcerted the composers friends: they found both the writing and the form complex and said it was hard to play. Only Hanslick recognized that "Brahms appears increasingly to withdraw into himself, seems more at ease, with ever-greater assurance in the vigorous expression of simple feelings. This work is endowed with intense emotional life, without effort, without excess, without artifice!' And he repeatedly pointed out that compostions like this one are much purer than so many other works popular at the time, when composers let themselves write conventional banalities and virtuoso effects poor both in dramatic feeling and in taste.
The first movement, Allegro non troppo ma con brio, includes the basic structure of sonata form but treats it in a free manner, as would be the case with most of Brahms' late works. Despite this freedom (brought in solely as required by poetic expression), we note a predilection for an arrangement rarely seen hitherto outside Mozart: Brahms shows a more or less strong tendency to construct his development on new themes rather than those heard in the exposition - a need for renewal that would reveal itself increasingly in the German school of the years to come. Two themes dominate this opening Allegro (which also includes six secondary ideas), one vigorous and heroic, the other quiet and serene. The development essentially brings in two new ideas, and the recapitulation returns to the opposition between the first two themes and opens out on an eloquent coda.
The second movement is an Adagio in D minor of great simplicity of structure and deeply expressive beauty. It is a sort of melancholy Lied, somewhat Slavic in color, presenting itself as a theme and four variations. The melodic character of the initial motif is particularly rich and very naturally gives rise to the variation form.
Unlike its predecessor, this quintet has four movements, including an autonomous scherzo, Un poco allegretto; it is in G minor and corresponds to an intermezzo with a Hungarian cast. Although the main theme is rather ordinary, Brahms finds interesting resources in it.
The finale, Vivace ma non troppo presto in G major, emphasizes the Hungarian aspect already
found in the scherzo. It is a happy, cheerful movement the generosity and melodic invention of which recall Schubert. The north German dreamer who was almost always present in Brahms' moods is completely absent from this, one of his sunniest, most Viennese pieces. Herein probably lies the explanation for this quintet often being called the Prater-Quintal. This closing movement is in sonata form, although, of the two main themes and three secondary ideas in the exposition, only the first motif is used in the development, which bursts with inventiveness. This development section is a kind of rhapsody framed by the exposition and the recapitulation. One last remark: the rather lengthy coda is conceived as a small rondo with couplet/refrain alternations, the whole in frenzied high-spirits that recall a gypsy friska.
-Claude Rostand (translation by Robert Cushman)