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For a composer whose reputation rests on his avowed devotion to the “classical” aspects and the traditional forms of music, Brahms was surprisingly experimental in his choice of musical ensembles. In the chamber music genre, his catalog lists a remarkable number of works with non-standard scoring. These are works of undeniable richness and beauty, but they are not in any way routine. Even setting aside such items as the Horn Trio (with piano and violin) and the Clarinet Trio (with cello and piano), there are almost as many hybrid works (piano quartets, string quintets and sextets, piano quintet, clarinet quintet) as there are “standard” forms: duo sonata, piano trio, and string quartet, etc.

One comparison will confirm the point: Dvorˇák wrote a total of 15 string quartets; Brahms, only three. Of course, three is merely the number of quartets that survived. Scholars report that Brahms in fact composed and then destroyed at least a dozen works (even perhaps as many as 20) in this, the form that was, along with the symphony, most closely identified by Brahms as being the domain of the great Beethoven. (The genre of the piano sonata was an arena in which Brahms made three early contributions and later produced nothing at all.)

Brahms was, indeed, notoriously self-critical. As it turned out, he waited more than 20 years before submitting his first set of string quartets for publication in 1873. In fact, no chamber work of any kind was composed by Brahms during the eight-year period preceding the completion of the Op. 51 Quartets in 1873. The composer’s third work in the form (Op. 67) would follow shortly, and it would turn out to be the last such work from the ever-enigmatic Brahms.

It has often been conjectured that work on the Third Quartet offered the fastidious composer some relief from his dramatic and emotionally turbulent First Symphony. Indeed, it was during the summer of 1875, at Ziegelhausen near Heidelberg, that Brahms wrote that he had composed several works he described as “useless trifles, to avoid facing the serious countenance of a symphony.” The Quartet, one of those “trifles,” was introduced in Berlin in June 1876 by the Joachim Quartet.

In characterizing the three Brahms quartets, Daniel Gregory Mason offered this concise summary: “If the C-minor String Quartet [No. 1] might be briefly described as that of drama, and the A-minor [No. 2] as that of sentiment, the B-flat would undoubtedly have to be set down as the quartet of humor.” The engaging qualities of the work are immediately apparent in the opening Vivace, as a bucolic “hunting-horn” theme with triplet rhythms reveals the light-hearted side of Brahms. The interplay of rhythms produces a constantly shifting pulse that generates much interest. Many listeners will be reminded of the good-natured qualities of Dvorˇák’s music in this movement.

A serenely flowing, almost Schumannesque Andante follows, although not without some dramatic interruptions. The inner depths of Brahms at his most human are explored in richly scored writing that reveals the composer’s experience with the earlier string sextets.

In the third movement, a minuet marked Agitato, Brahms creates an unusual texture by muting the two violins and the cello. The unmuted viola leads the way, producing a haunting and rather disturbing ensemble sonority that provoked a delighted response from an admiring Clara Schumann. Brahms himself described the movement as “the tenderest and most impassioned I have ever written.”

The viola retains its prominence in the opening pages of the final movement before receding into the ensemble. Here, during the course of eight variations, we witness the mastery Brahms could display in this most deceptively simple of musical forms. The composer unifies the work by introducing a theme which turns out to be related to the opening theme of the first movement. Is it any wonder that Brahms, in his later years, looked back on Op. 67 as his favorite of the three string quartets he produced?

– Dennis Bade