The Perfect Piece?

There and back again…but transformed by the journey
(“Hobbiton” by J.R.R. Tolkien)


Is there such a thing as a perfect piece of music? Not too long nor too short, melodious not saccharine, dissonant not teeth-jarring, something a first-time listener would come away with saying “that was amazing!” while a grizzled old veteran like me could play it a hundred times with his wonder still intact.

On June 6th we’ll be broadcasting a concert for NCMF featuring piano quintets. Spicing up the usual online fare are clips from rehearsals and conversations with the musicians. In addition to Milhaud’s unusual “Creation of the World,” the program features the Brahms piano quintet, perhaps this elusive perfect piece of music. I first performed it in high school with my group at Manhattan School of Music. For a year we rehearsed every Friday after school until 10 PM with a break for pizza (what else?). It was a formative experience; three of us went on to successful careers in music.

Beware nerds bearing violas

What does it mean to call the Brahms a perfect piece? I think it means the listener leaves feeling like they’ve undergone a transformative journey. That’s what happens in a great concert, isn’t it? We sit there an hour or two and travel worlds away only to blink when the lights go on and find we’re right back where we started but ever so slightly different.

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

Brahms ratchets up the tension within each movement (there are four) and also in a kind of arc over the whole work. Each movement has a clearly defined character: where the first is fierce, dark, brooding the second is soft, warm and a little dreamy, followed by a diabolical scherzo (third movement). This culminates in the finale and oh, what a finale! It starts mysteriously like spies emerging out of fog in some Eastern European city and builds to a kind of Cri de Cœur. This pivots into a folksy melody which Brahms brings to a boil, eventually lowering the heat again until one final burst of manic energy and the piece ends in a triumphant primal scream.

Johannes Brahms: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Opus 34
IV: Finale – poco sostenuto, Allegro non troppo

Not a single note is out of place. With some music, even great composers, there is the sense they went on auto-pilot after a movement or two or had a bit too much for lunch and would have been better served taking a nap instead of writing more (I’m thinking of you, Dvořák and Schumann piano quintets….). Not here. This is a great composer at the peak of his powers and a piece I have returned to again and again since high school, discovering something new every time.

The perfect piece.

David Yang, Artistic Director

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