Few composers have been more devoted to chamber music than Johannes Brahms, and no one has written a more diverse assortment of small-ensemble masterworks. Besides the expected string quartets and piano trios, his output included two sextets as well as a clarinet quintet, piano quintet and horn trio. A particular highlight are his three piano quartets: two completed back to back in 1861 and another in 1875.
As part of an international tour, four well-respected musicians — pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, violinist James Ehnes (replacing the previously announced Christian Tetzlaff), violist Tabea Zimmermann and cellist Clemens Hagen — will perform all three of the works in an SCP Chamber Music concert April 10. Because approximate performance times for the pieces run from 35 to 47 minutes each, there will be two intermissions, with the total length of the concert expected to be 2½ hours. “It’s going to be a long evening,” Zimmermann said. “But they are, of course, all three fantastic works.”
The idea for touring Brahms’ Piano Quartets was planted in 2010, when the four musicians performed a program at two summer music festivals in Norway and Austria that included one of the works. They found they had an immediate chemistry. “That’s why we wanted to make a tour because the time we did play together, it worked out so well,” Zimmermann said. In addition, two of the musicians — Hagen and Zimmermann — are marking their 50th birthdays this year, so the tour seemed like an ideal way to celebrate together.
Although those concerts marked the first time that had played together, the four musicians knew each other previously and almost all of them had collaborated in other varying instrumental combinations. Tetzlaff and Andsnes have been recital partners for nearly 25 years, for example, and Tetzlaff and Zimmermann were once in the same youth orchestra and have collaborated often since. All four put a big emphasis on chamber music, and each of the three string musicians plays in a well-regarded string quartet. (Tetzlaff withdrew April 5 from the Chicago performance due to the impending birth of his child, who’s arriving earlier than anticipated.)
While Brahms’ three piano quartets are not often performed at once, they complement one another, Tetzlaff said, because the pieces are so different — much like the composer’s string quartets. “When you look at the three string quartets [by Brahms], there is a Beethovenian, wild C minor one; an almost giocoso [merry, light-hearted] B-flat major one and then the A minor one, which is a floating, melancholic piece,” Tetzlaff said. “So whenever he tackles a genre several times, he wants to say all that can be said in it. It doesn’t make sense for him to write a few pieces with the same general feeling.”
Here is a quick overview, based on entries in Melvin Berger’s Guide to Chamber Music, of the piano quartets:
Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25. The most popular of the three quartets, this work is perhaps best known for its rousing fourth movement, “Rondo in Gypsy Style,” which features four folk-tinged principal themes. Begun in 1856 or 1857, it received its first run-through in 1861 with celebrated pianist Clara Schumann. Brahms and the Hellmesberger Quartet presented the official premiere in 1862, helping to establish the composer as a major musical figure in Vienna.
Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26. Brahms liked to compose works in pairs, so this quartet was completed alongside the first one in the fall of 1861, and it received its debut 13 days after his first piano quartet. Particularly memorable is the haunting second section. “Perhaps the most striking part of this movement is heard at the end of the first theme and again later, as the piano ripples up and down an arpeggio, at first answered by the cello, then more strongly by the cello and viola, and finally with forceful intensity by all three strings,” Berger wrote.
Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60 (Werther). Brahms first worked on this piece in 1854-56, when his close friend, Robert Schumann, was suffering with severe mental illness and finally died. The composer came to Düsseldorf to help Clara Schumann, for whom he had complicated romantic feelings, and the couple’s family. The turbulent emotions of this time run through this piece, which Brahms set aside and reworked, beginning in 1873, adding two new movements. “You may place a picture on the title page,” he wrote the publisher, “namely a head — with a pistol in front of it. I shall send you a photograph of myself for the purpose.” Because of the similarities of this scenario with the title character in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, who kills himself over the unrequited love of his friend’s wife, the quartet is nicknamed “Werther.”
The April 10 performance concludes the first of a two-part, 11-city international tour of this highly unusual program that begins April 4 in Oslo and includes a stop on April 9 in Carnegie Hall. The tour resumes May 24-30 with six more concerts, including stops in the Barbican Centre in London and Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. “I’ve never had a tour like this with chamber music, I have to say,” Zimmermann said. “This is really a big, luxury tour. It’s the most gorgeous concert halls wherever we go and big ones. It’s quite a treat. I feel very honored to be part of this.”
Kyle MacMillan, the former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
NOTE: The documentary “Concerto: A Beethoven Journey” featuring Leif Ove Andnes opens April 15 for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Directed by Phil Grabsky (acclaimed for the “In Search of” series), the film follows Andsnes as he presents his “Beethoven Journey,” a four-year survey of the composer’s works for piano and orchestra. The project, which took the pianist to 114 cities in 27 countries for more than 230 performances, culminated in a 2014-2015 tour in which he performed Beethoven’s five piano concertos. Those concertos are among the highlights of Symphony Center’s 2016-17 season, as it presents the complete cycle of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos, with soloists Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman, Mitsuko Uchida and Radu Lupu. performing with the CSO (for four of the five works), and Richard Goode and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (on Feb. 8 with Concerto No. 2).