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The composer’s first attempt at a string quintet (following the Schubert model with an added cello) was abandoned in favor of a rescoring as a two-piano sonata, and then reworked again to become the celebrated Piano Quintet, his Op. 34. Nearly 20 years later (1882), Brahms opted to follow the example of Mozart and add a second viola to the ensemble for his official String Quintet No. 1. Although the result is not one of his best-known chamber works, it was a favorite of the composer himself. (“You have never before had such a beautiful work from me,” he wrote to his publisher Simrock.)

Unusual instrumental voicings (with the second violin rising above the first in the opening measures to sing the main theme) and innovative structural patterns (such as a slow central movement with two scherzo-like episodes) mark this as one of the most distinctive of the composer’s chamber works. In that second movement, Brahms reworks themes from two of his earliest piano compositions, juxtaposing elements of reflection and exuberance to produce one of his most arresting creations.

Relentless animation might be the most concise characterization of the last movement, which reminds us of the composer’s love for Baroque techniques in its frequent fugato passages. As the cumulative rhythmic energy draws the forces into an integrated ensemble, the work concludes with counterpoint giving way to unison declamations of the principal theme in an emphatic coda.

— Dennis Bade