> Brahms; String Quartets / Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 1

BRAHMS: String Quartets (complete); Piano Quartet No. 1 in g, op. 25.
Busch Quartet, Rudolf Serkin (piano).

I came to appreciate Brahms's music, outside of individual works, very late. He bored me so much that when I heard his symphonies in concert, I would fall asleep. I agreed thoroughly with George Bernard Shaw's assessment. Yet I could hardly avoid Brahms's work in the concert and the recital hall. It took a very minor work of Brahms to turn me around and to open up a huge catalogue of listening. For me, not to sleight the orchestral scores, Brahms at his best lies in his chamber music. Still, after all these years, the string quartets I find hard to love. I'm not alone. Compared to the quartets of Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn, and Bartók, ensembles rarely program or record them. Furthermore, they've always had trouble (considered "difficult" to listen to) although they've also had significant admirers. Schoenberg singled out the first two for commendation in his essay "Brahms the Progressive" from Style and Idea and pointed out the boldness of their harmonies and the subtleties of their motific construction. On the other hand, he remarked to Oscar Levant that Brahms's string quartets lay "suspiciously well" for a pianist's hands, an implied criticism that Brahms had not conceived the works for the instruments.

Thoroughly intimidated by Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms waited a long time to come to the string quartet medium. He may have destroyed up to forty previous attempts. Then he composed the first two in a rush (for him), although he delayed publication while he polished them. The String Quartet No. 1, full of Sturm und Drang almost to the point of turgidity, seems orchestrally conceived, the ideas too big for a mere four instruments, especially in the outer movements. Brahms tends to cram in as much counterpoint as he can, to show his serious bona fides. Where Mozart and Beethoven, in their textures if not in their psychology, are clear and direct, Brahms seems to over-qualify his ideas. On the other hand, this is one of the things that Schoenberg (not free of this himself) admired.

In the second quartet, however, the music fits the medium -- true chamber music rather than orchestral music stuffed into a suit too small. It's my favorite of the three and in many ways the one that interests me the most. For one thing, all the movements are in A tonality, either minor or major -- a homotonal work, perhaps a tip of the hat to the Baroque suite -- and the harmonies rove more adventurously. The main theme of the first movement foreshadows the opening of the Symphony No. 4.
Unfortunately, my review copy came with a duplicate of the first disc, so I have no idea about the String Quartet No. 3 or the Piano Quartet in g. Nevertheless, on the strength of the one CD, I can recommend the set with a certain degree of confidence. Again, not all that many viable recordings exist out there. The quartets seem to pose a great deal of interpretive difficulty. You will find many modern recordings out there that get the notes, but not the music. For me, the Takács Quartet performances lead the modern ensembles, and curiously they tend to resemble the Busch's. Both have a deep grasp of the Brahms idiom. The Takács have the advantage of better sound, stereo, and cleaner playing, but their interpretation seems studied. The Busch play these works as if exploring unknown territory, as to some extent the Brahms quartets were. They bring a sense of discovery and adventure to the table. Furthermore, Pristine Audio, at the top of audio restoration, greatly eliminates the schmutz from the original recordings which come from the Thirties. The second disc comes from sources in the Forties and thus I presume would sound even better. At any rate, both now rank as my favorite recordings of the first two Brahms quartets.

S.G.S. (November 2018)