A Rare Chance to Hear the Brahms Piano Quartets Together – and in Expert Hands

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Christian Teztlaff (violin), Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Clemens Hagen (cello). Milton Court Concert Hall, London, 28.5.2016. (MB)

Brahms, Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor, Op.25; Piano Quartet No 2 in A major, Op.26; Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor, Op.60

I remain sceptical about this sort of programming. Performing, say, Beethoven’s three final piano sonatas in a single recital makes a great deal of sense, although so likewise does performing them separately with other works, attempting to suggest, even to draw, connections. Performing all five of Prokofiev’s piano concertos does not, however much that combination of works might be helpful to collect as a 2-CD set. This concert, part of Leif Ove Andsnes’s LSO Artist Portrait series (albeit without any members of the LSO!), fell somewhere in between. It made for a long evening, especially when programmed in chronological order, with a single interval separating the first and second quartets. On the other hand, we do not hear these works nearly so often as we should – much the same might be said for any piano quartet – and hearing Brahms’s development is always interesting. If I should have preferred two or three concerts, including works by other composers, that was no reason to look a gift-horse in the mouth, for these were excellent performances from beginning to end, much as one might have expected from Andsnes, Christian Tetzlaff, Tabea Zimmermann, and Clemens Hagen.

First was the First, in G minor, op.25, as orchestrated, unforgettably, whether you like it or not, by Schoenberg. It was a strength of this performance, the first movement opening straight away with an echt-Brahms sound, that one did forget, and indeed I am now still hearing the original, not Schoenberg’s version, in my head. Strings, and then piano, sounded ‘right’ – which is not to say that there is only one ‘right’, of course, although there are surely many ‘wrongs’. It was not just the sound, though; phrasing and, cumulatively, paragraphs evinced a similar sense of ‘rightness’, all richly Romantic. (The disjuncture between literary and philosophical Romanticism and its musical counterpart, if counterpart it be, means that we cannot really call this ‘late Romanticism’. We probably should, but it would only serve to confuse.) A viola solo from Zimmermann, rich-toned and beautiful in itself, also brought so much more, heralding not only Andsnes’s elaboration, but, so it seemed, the whole of the second group, even the development. The development section itself brought half-lights (yes, this ‘early’ in Brahms’s career) and, of course, vehemence; both propelled the music. So, fundamentally, did the composer’s motivic working, which surely must have been the greatest attraction of all for Schoenberg, here heard meaningfully throughout, quite without pedantry. This was indeed ‘Brahms the Progressive’.

Romantic unease (earlier?) from Hagen’s underpinning cello characterised the second movement, permitting of great ambivalence, great ambiguity. Andsnes’s way with rhythm and its relationship, inextricable, to harmony assured motivic integrity, not that that was ever in doubt! Much the same might be said of the Andante, despite its different character. Menacing currents made their point without cheap exaggeration, for they had been prepared and understood harmonically by all concerned; this was true chamber music-making. There was vehemence in those martial rhythms later on, but harmony remained the ultimate mover. They cast their shadow over the return of the opening material, just as they should. There was likewise no doubting the urgency of the finale, taken at quite a lick, nor the astounding virtuosity of the players, but that was not at the expense of chiaroscuro. Contrasting episodes certainly contrasted, but within a greater unity to which they contributed.

The A major Quartet, op.26 followed. If I found this slightly less compelling, that is more a reflection of my response to the work than to the performance, which again was of the highest quality. Andsnes opened the first movement in intriguingly neutral fashion, having us wonder where it might lead. There was certainly a lightness to what immediately followed, underlining the vehemence that followed that, and so on. But ‘difference’ never seemed in retrospect to have been for the sake of it. From Teztlaff’s golden- or silver- or various other-hued violin line – no all-purpose ‘beauty’ here – to the twists, turns, and pedal points of the bass, in whichever part, this performance knew where it was heading. The spirit, and not just the scale, seemed to owe as much to Schubert as to Beethoven, which is surely right in this particular work. The second movement progressed similarly – yet in difference, with more than the occasional hint of Brahms’s Mozartian inheritance (highly welcome!) Nostalgia and distance seemed thereby evoked and dramatized, grief in response all the more heightened. In the third movement, tendencies from both predecessors seemed united, played off against one another: form here was dynamic, never a mere framework. The finale, taken attacca, sounded very much a finale (not always as evident a quality as one might expect). If the ghost of Beethoven had sometimes been placated, here he returned with a vengeance; he had never gone away.

The first movement of the Third, op.60 in C minor, registered a very different character from the outset. Internalised anger of an almost Webern-like concision, tension screwed up, at times almost unbearably: this was a performance (as it is a work) still more dialectical in quality. There was nothing appliqué to this terror: it emerged from musical necessity. Rhythm was the progenitor, at least at first, of the different character to the scherzo, as one might expect. Relative rhythmical relaxation was predicated upon what it was relaxing from. The changing relationship between piano and strings, the latter sometimes ‘led’ by Teztlaff, at other times in quite a different formation, proved a crucial element to the drama unfolding. The movement came to a close with such fury that it might almost have been the close of the work; except… The cello sonata-like opening to the Andante thus came as relief (not unlike the Andante to the Second Piano Concerto). Then a piano trio, in perfect balance; then the full quartet, transformed by experience, melancholy heightened. Again, the changing relationship between parts, between ensembles, was very much of the essence. In context, we heard the opening to the finale almost as part of an ‘additional’ violin sonata; in the hands of Andsnes and Teztlaff, how could it not, if only momentarily? So subtle were the entrances of viola and cello, one hardly noticed them. The intensity, emotional and intellectual, of what followed, could not, however, have been missed by anybody.

Mark Berry


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