Early in his career, Brahms clearly had a hang up when it came to writing for strings in particular combinations. As proof, he composed two string sextets before attempting a string quartet, the acknowledged chamber music king, and he composed his only violin concerto a year before turning out a sonata for violin and piano. Don’t look for a logical explanation; the ways of a creative genius are usually not forthcoming, especially from the genius himself.
But he didn’t seem to have any problem with the keyboard. Indeed, Brahms and the piano had a long, satisfying relationship. Although the composer may not have been a barnstormer in the Liszt mold, his keyboard prowess had to have been formidable. How else could he have played in public his demonically difficult piano concertos? And as exemplified by his youthful, technically thorny piano sonatas he played for the Schumanns at their first meeting, Brahms’ writing for the keyboard was distinctive right from the start. The young Johannes may have worshipped Beethoven and taken up the older master’s aura — the King of Hanover called Brahms a “little Beethoven” — but his big, bold, keyboard style was strictly Brahmsian, that is to say there was a kind of sinew that was quite unlike Beethoven’s pianism even at its most dramatic.
A composer other than Beethoven loomed in Brahms’ musical consciousness: Franz Schubert, and there are many lyrical passages in Brahms that seem to memorialize the great Franz. An example is the main theme of this Quartet — four piano-alone measures that float in gentle triplets and regular eighth notes, met by cello at the fifth measure with an important, frequently present scale figure. This benign lyricism is soon to rouse the piano to a powerful outburst that gives the main theme a taut, muscular profile. This is typical Brahms behavior, and one of the many reasons we treasure the little Beethoven.
The expectation of a slow movement that sings ingratiatingly is proof, if proof were needed, that Brahms’ romanticism ran as affectingly as that of his lamented mentor, Schumann. And the muscular exuberance of the Scherzo and the Gypsy flavor of the finale fill out the Quartet in the best possible Brahmsian manner.
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.