Program Notes

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)

I. Allegro
II. Adagio
III. Andantino
IV. Con moto

Thirty years after he had begun work on the piano quintet, the 57 year-old Brahms decided to retire and give up composition. But upon meeting the clarinet virtuoso Richard Mühlfeld, Brahms was inspired to un-retire and write several new works for him, among them a quintet for clarinet and string quartet. The work received its first hearing on November 24, 1891 in a performance with Mühlfeld on clarinet and a string quartet led by Joseph Joachim. (It is not an unreasonable stretch to think that my viola, which belonged to Joachim, may have been in this performance.) 

The shadow of Mozart’s masterpiece can be felt throughout: the two quintets share a dark autumnal feel, and there are specific references by Brahms to the young master’s late work. Like Mozart, Brahms also introduces the clarinet after the strings have played the theme and ends the piece with a set of variations, letting the viola speak last.

I discover something new every time I return to this piece and find it manages to be heartbreaking without becoming maudlin. The last movement ends unexpectedly with the opening from the first movement, yet, far from being jarring, it feels sad and inevitable, almost like the gentle departure of a beloved from this world.

Program notes by David Yang