Brahms: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 Peter Serkin and The Orion String Quartet


Johannes Brahms

Brahms was twenty-nine years old in 1862 when he composed the first version of this quintet.  An uncompromising perfectionist, Brahms struggled to find the ideal instrumentation for this work, just as he had with his first piano concerto three years earlier.  It was first incarnated as a quintet for two violins, viola, and two cellos, a version that Brahms destroyed in 1863 when he recast it as a sonata for two pianos.  That version didn’t satisfy him either, though it survives as Op. 34b.  This glorious music found its final expression as a piano quintet, which Brahms completed in 1864.

I was introduced to this piece when I was seventeen, through a 1964 Columbia LP featuring Rudolf Serkin and the Budapest String Quartet.  Peter Serkin (born in 1947), famous son of a famous father, made this video with the Orion String Quartet in 2010 at New York City’s famed 92nd Street Y.

Whenever I listen to Brahms – not just this quintet, but any Brahms – I can’t escape the thought that, listening to his music, we are somehow ennobled.  Something in us is beautified; our characters are made better.  It’s not just that there is never anything cheap in Brahms’ music, though that is certainly true.  There is a grandeur, a nobility that is altogether incompatible with anything base or unworthy.  At the conclusion of a major work by Brahms, I feel like a better person.

The tempo indications for the four movements, and their start times in the video, are as follows:

I. Allegro non troppo (0:10)
II. Andante un poco adagio (13:50)
III. Scherzo: Allegro (23:55)
IV. Finale: Poco Sostenuto (32:25)

If you don’t have time to listen to all four movements, advance the timer to 23:55 and just listen to the Scherzo.  The main theme of this movement (which makes its first appearance at 24:19) is one of the most glorious, majestic themes that Brahms – or anyone else – ever wrote.  You can come back later to hear the rest.

Published in: on April 30, 2014 at 5:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Pianist – Hélène Grimaud

Pianist Hélène Grimaud, who made her debut on this blog last month in an unforgettable performance of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto, clearly deserves more than just a single hearing.  For her return engagement, I have chosen this performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor.

Johannes Brahms in 1853

I have loved Brahms’ first concerto almost from the beginning, from that time in my distant past when my knowledge and love of classical music were growing at a truly extraordinary rate, and I felt much as Columbus must have felt upon discovering the New World.  What unimaginable riches lay ahead of me!  Where to begin my exploration?  As it happens, I was not without guidance, and made some excellent – even if mainstream – choices, one of which was Van Cliburn’s 1964 recording of this concerto with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a performance I have loved ever since.

In the liner notes to that recording, the novelist James Michener writes as follows about the genesis of this concerto:

At twenty, Brahms had enormous acclaim, and promptly fell in love with the wife of his benefactor (Robert Schumann).  Clara Schumann was fourteen years older than Brahms and the mother of six children with a seventh on the way.  This was a love affair that would haunt Brahms for decades and prevent him from marrying any of the younger women who idolized him.  Then, as if in condemnation of his young protégé, Robert Schumann went out of his mind, tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide and was placed in an asylum, where he died.  Brahms trailed Clara through Europe, helping her with her seven children and relying upon her for spiritual and artistic guidance.

During this period of emotional turbulence Brahms heard a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and decided that the time had come when he must try a symphony of his own.  So at twenty-one he began drafting the traditional four movements, and each showed promise.  But he was diffident about his capacity to score his ideas for orchestra, so he made the fatal mistake of putting them down provisionally in the form of a sonata for two pianos, believing that when he had done so he could easily go back and shift them into symphonic orchestration.

The pianos took over!  Try as he might, he could not transfer his ideas into symphonic form, nor could he erase the essential piano structure of what he had written.  He was disconsolate and thought of junking the project, but then, as he explained in a letter to Clara, a dream came to him in which he heard his abortive symphony as a full-fledged piano concerto.  But with a completely new finale!

He had the clue he needed.  Keeping the first two movements of his symphony, he converted them into the first two movements we hear on this record.  The last movement of his symphony he threw away and we never hear of it again.  But the third movement, a saraband funeral march, he laid aside to use years later as the great second movement of his German Requiem.  Then, starting from scratch, he composed a new finale, which we hear in this recording pretty much as he must have heard it in his dream.

Considering its beginnings, it’s not surprising that the Brahms D minor is, in my opinion at least, the most symphonic of all concerti, but it is a great deal more than that.  Listen to what Ms. Grimaud herself says about this concerto in the remarkable documentary, “Living with Wolves”, which you can watch in its entirety at

For me, Brahms’ First Concerto is a vital piece; it’s a piece I need to survive, and there aren’t very many of those, perhaps two or three.  It was written fairly early in Brahms’ life, and for me it’s a testament; it’s a requiem.  It has a density and a gravity of expression that I find very moving, and one of the things I love the most about it is this raw power.

I always think of Schumann, because when Brahms wrote it, it was after Schumann’s first suicide attempt, and when I hear the orchestral introduction, which is of course fairly long… I see my life unrolling as the music goes.  It’s a very, very personal experience for me.

Ms. Grimaud’s allusion to the gravity of expression of this concerto calls to mind something I have felt for a long time: Whether or not it drew its inspiration from the circumstance of Schumann’s attempted suicide, Brahms’ First Concerto – intensely dramatic, unabashedly tender, joyfully victorious – is the most profound piano concerto ever written.

In this 2005 performance, the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Michael Gielen at the Festival Theater in Baden-Baden.

Published in: on March 31, 2012 at 9:01 pm  Comments (2)  
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Brahms: Horn Trio in E flat major, Op. 40

As I approach the second anniversary of this blog, I am conscious – and a little chagrined – that I have not yet featured any music by Brahms.  This is surprising on at least two levels.  First, Brahms was one of the first composers I came to know and love.  His two piano concerti, the Violin Sonata No. 3, the sonatas for viola and piano, the Paganini and Handel variations, numerous other solo piano works – these are all pieces that I have known and loved since my salad days.  Second, Brahms is such a great composer; how could I have neglected him until now?  In my opinion, no one beats Brahms – and few can equal him – when it comes to noble.  There is a grandeur to Brahms’ music, a profundity, that is ennobling to the listener.  At the conclusion of a piece by Brahms, we feel like better people.  We think grander, loftier thoughts, and are more forgiving of our enemies.

The Horn Trio was one of the first pieces of classical music that I came to know.  During my sophomore year in high school, my friend Andy Rangell often invited me to listen to him practice the piano during our lunch hour.  This trio happened to be one of the pieces he was working on, and I came to know it intimately as Andy played the piano and sang the horn and violin parts.

As familiar as I am with this piece, however, I woke up one morning recently with the ebullient theme from the fourth movement running through my head, but could not for the life of me identify it.  I knew the music so well, though, that I just continued to let it play, confident that I would soon recall what it was.  When its identity still eluded me, I decided that it might help if I sang it out loud.  I began to sing, “ba ya ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba…” in strict 6/8 time, and immediately knew what it was.  Something about singing it that way reminded me of the French horn, and that was all the help I needed.

This glorious performance dates from 1993, and features Itzhak Perlman on violin, Daniel Barenboim on piano, and Dale Clevenger on French horn.

Published in: on July 31, 2011 at 11:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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Two Who Died Too Young – Part II: William Kapell

William Kapell died on October 29, 1953 when the DC-6 on which he was returning from a concert tour of Australia flew into King’s Mountain, just 16 miles south of San Francisco Airport.  On this – the 56th – anniversary of his death, I am pleased to honor his memory and share his artistry with readers of these pages.

kapellWilliam Kapell was born in New York City on September 20, 1922.  He began taking piano lessons at age 7, and his early teachers included Dorothea Anderson La Follette and Olga Samaroff, with whom he studied first in Philadelphia and later at Juilliard.  In 1941, he won both the Philadelphia Orchestra’s youth competition and the prestigious Naumburg Award, and at 20 he embarked on his concert career.

Initially, he was best known for his performances of the crowd-pleasing concertos by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and especially Khachaturian.  As Virgil Thompson wrote after his death, “It was only in the last two years that he had gained real access to the grand repertory of the piano, to the concertos of Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms and Chopin and to the suites of Bach and Debussy, and that he had been genuinely successful with that repertory.”

The deepening of his art in these last few years was recognized,” writes Michael Kimmelman in the New York Review Of Books.  “Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatagorsky became anxious to record with him.  When Jack Pfeiffer, the RCA producer, called him in California one afternoon to ask whether he knew the Brahms D Minor Violin Sonata because Heifetz wanted to record it the next day, Kapell said yes, then stayed up all night to learn it.  [The italics are mine.]  The recording, exultant and showing great feeling, was made in Hollywood in 1950; it explains why Heifetz said he could never forgive Kapell for dying young.”

I have that record, and it is glorious.  But what kind of talent is it that can learn overnight – and to Kapell’s exacting standards – a piece as profound and demanding as Brahms’ third violin sonata?  For a recording with Heifetz, no less!

Harold Schonberg wrote in The Great Pianists, published in 1963, that “Many American pianists of the postwar generation have the potentialities to develop into major artists, but as yet it is a little early to make any predictions.  The most promising of all, William Kapell, died in an airplane crash in 1953.  Kapell had won a Naumburg Competition award, and he went on to impress an international public with a spectacularly honest technique (never any bluff or cover-up), a forthright musical approach and a fierce integrity.  His playing had that indefinable thing known as command, and he was well on his way to being one of the century’s important pianists when his plane from Australia went down shortly before arriving in San Francisco.”

I was introduced to Kapell’s playing in 1964 through an RCA Victor album entitled “The Unforgettable William Kapell”.  This record includes the Khachaturian Piano Concerto, a lovely interpretation of Evocación by Albéniz, the 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and a performance of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz that is sheer wizardry.  In my opinion, this performance comes as close to pianistic perfection as it is possible to do.  Never has the indefinable “command” referred to by Schonberg been more in evidence.  Regarding this performance, Tim Page of the Washington Post writes that it had “all the energy and the manic wildness of Horowitz, but it also [had] a sort of cool intelligence and a formal understanding which… wasn’t always in the Horowitz recordings.”  He goes on to say, “I would very, very quickly name it one of the most extraordinary piano recordings I have ever heard.”

The following clip is the only known video of Kapell.  It is from Alistair Cooke’s TV program “Omnibus”, and includes a sonata by Scarlatti, the Nocturne in E Flat by Chopin, and an arrangement for piano by Emilio Napolitano of an Argentine folk song, “Gato”.

Claudia Cassidy, the famously acerbic critic for the Chicago Tribune, wrote in her tribute to Kapell, “He was, this smoldering, passionate young pianist, generous, lovable, deeply gentle of heart.  I loved his playing above all other playing, and this can scarcely be a secret to anyone who has read this column.  So not for myself, but to tell you what he was like, now that he is gone, here is a part of one of his last letters:

Why do you think playing in Chicago always is some sort of test for me? … Music isn’t enough.  Performers aren’t enough.  There must be someone who loves music as much as life.  For you, and remember this always, those of us with something urgent to say, we give everything.

“Kapell gave, and I am eternally grateful that I was here to listen.”