Program Notes

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)

I. Allegro non troppo
II. Andante, un poco adagio
III. Scherzo: allegro
IV. Finale: poco sostenuto - allegro non troppo

Working in 1862 with the ghost of Franz Schubert (composer of the great C Major string quintet) hovering, the twenty-nine-year-old Brahms wrote a string quintet and sent the score for comments to his friends, Josef Joachim (the great violin virtuoso) and Clara Schumann (widow of composer Robert Schumann). While they each found the piece “of the greatest significance” they roundly criticized its orchestration as a string quintet, Joachim refusing even to perform it in public. Brahms reluctantly took a year to make revisions, eventually eliminating strings altogether and rewriting it for piano four hands (perhaps looking again to Schubert and his “Grand Duo”). Yet Clara was still unsatisfied when she read the new version, saying it felt like she was “playing an arrangement written…for other instruments whose ideas were lost on the piano and should actually be spread across an entire orchestra.” I suspect Brahms was getting pretty frustrated at this point- he initially refused to rework the piece. In the end he relented and in 1864 wrote the third version, this time cutting back to one pianist and adding a string quartet. The reintroduction of the strings recaptured much of the good in the original string quintet version but keeping a single piano solved all sorts of problems. Clara finally wrote “no one unaware of its earlier incarnations as a string quintet and sonata would ever have believed it had been conceived and written for any other combination of instruments.”

In high school this was one of the first pieces I ever studied in depth. It was a quintet of stellar colleagues: Keng Yuen Tseng, violin, went on to win silver in the Tchaikovsky Competition, Alexis Gerlach, cello, plays in the Trio Solisti (and attended NBPT festival a few years ago) and Alexander Barenboim was a piano virtuoso and fiery musician. We met twice a week for a year and it was one of the most fulfilling collaborations I’ve ever experienced.

Program notes by David Yang