Brahms – the complete guide, part 2: chamber and instrumental music

Gramophone Wed 31st May 2017

In the second of a three-part series, Michael Quinn talks about Brahms's chamber and instrumental music with leading artists

Brahms

Towards the end of Ronald Taylor's Robert Schumann, His Life and Work (London: 1982), the composer's daughter Eugenie recalls, 'as though I were looking at a picture, a hall in a house in Düsseldorf, with a group of children gazing in amazement at the banisters on the landing above. There a young man with long, fair hair was performing the most hair-raising gymnastic exercises, hanging by his arms and swinging backwards and forwards, from one side to the other. Finally he swung himself up until he was balancing on his hands, stretched out his legs and leapt down into the hall below, landing in the midst of the admiring children. The young man', she finally reveals, 'was Johannes Brahms, the children were the Schumann family.'

The image is a startling one, not for the portrait of athletic prowess it paints (impressive though that is), but rather because it is so powerfully at odds with the abiding image of Brahms that has been handed down to us: the older, gruff, grizzly bear of a man, 'rather taciturn and jerky as a rule, and notoriously difficult to carry on a conversation with', as Dame Ethel Smyth once observed. Still, to be presented with an image of Brahms the man apparently contrary to the icon that Brahms the composer has become seems useful prior to a discussion of his chamber and instrumental music - a body of work which proves to be every bit as robust and full of life as the young athlete whose prodigious musical talents made him heaven-blessed and, at least in the eyes of the Schumann family, heaven-sent. Although Brahms was to show himself a master of every musical form save opera, it was in the intimate domain of the chamber and solo repertoire that he was to achieve genius. And while he was to destroy more work than he consented to publish, those chamber compositions he did commit to posterity - a mere two dozen pieces in all - all court the accolade of 'masterpiece'.

It has been a matter of both good fortune and historical inconvenience for Brahms that he came after Beethoven. Difficult though he found it living in the great man's shadow, how impossible it would have been had he had to share the limelight with 'that giant whose steps I always hear behind me'. In an age of musical drift where time and fashion were transfiguring the classical into the romantic, Brahms adopted an attitude that would not have been out of place in the latter part of our own century: he determined to be concerned only with himself, his own musical attitudes and, such as they were, his own ambitions.

It is probably no accident that the first two works with attributed opus numbers that Brahms allowed to survive are piano sonatas. His own prowess at the keyboard was well known and had been honed by adolescent employment in dubious dancehalls and taverns and in later and less ignominious engagements as an accompanist to the violinist Eduard Reményi. It was through Reményi that Brahms was to meet another violinist, Joseph Joachim, the dedicatee of the Op 1 C major Piano Sonata, completed and published in 1853. Though Liszt, arch advocate of Weimar progressivism, had played some of the sonata to its composer's approval (the E flat minor Scherzo particularly appealed) it is likely that the general intent of the writing - most immediately its emphatically classical first subject and the almost Schubertian exploration of keys in the second subject - would not have been sufficiently 'modern' or forward-looking enough to merit Brahms's wider acceptance amongst Liszt's more hard-line cronies. Right from the start the characteristic conundrum that informs all of Brahms's music is revealed: that the present has no real definition for him unless it is as an amalgam of the past and the personal. The future for Brahms, as for few other composers, is left to take care of itself. Yet, paradoxically, it's the very ambivalence of this stance that enabled him to look forward, to explore new possibilities in his music with such freedom. Brahms would never willingly have allowed himself to be a hostage to posterity just as he never submitted to the stylistic fetters of fashion.

Idil Biret, who has recorded all three sonatas and much of the solo repertoire for Naxos, argues that such idiosyncrasy is a strength in the writing. 'If you look at the first theme of the first movement of the C major Sonata it's very Beethovenian. But it's also 100 per cent Brahms. That's what's interesting about it; not what it echoes, but what it creates; not what can be found elsewhere, however diluted, but what can only be found here. That's the aspect people often overlook when they talk about Brahms.'

Emanuel Ax is also sensitive to any implication that Brahms's music is somehow diminished by its references to both recent and far-distant idioms. 'He wasn't someone who was stuck in the mid-nineteenth century slavishly copying the model of Beethoven or Bach. Not at all! He was certainly interested in using old forms, but his music is always pulsing with life and is always adventurous and fresh.' And just as he refuses to criticize Brahms for looking backwards, so too his resistance to accusations that the pace of forward movement in his music was slower than it ought to have been. 'Brahms was no one's patsy when it came to looking ahead,' he argues, citing the 'pretty astonishing ending' of the F minor Piano Sonata with its forceful sonorities and articulate polyphonic skill as proof of such.

Brahms's pioneering aspect is seen not least in his inimitable ability to imbue even his most intimate material with an impressive sense of scale, although Ax hesitates to corroborate Schumann's description of the piano sonatas as 'veiled symphonies'. 'I have never known what that means. He wasn't writing unpianistic music; the sonatas aren't meant to be symphonies in disguise. He just used the piano in ways that hadn't been used by others before him. Brahms changed piano technique. He created a new definition of piano music.'

That he did so in ways so subtle that they seldom draw attention to his erudition and innovation is the measure of his achievement - 'The sophisticated equilibrium ', as Idil Biret describes it, 'between the romantic expansivity of the music and the solid, strong classical forms that prevents indulgence and overstatement.'

Brahms used his solo piano pieces in ways other than self-expression, regularly exploring the methodology of other composers in the miniature de facto sketch-books that are his various sets of piano transcriptions while also using them to pay tribute to those of his predecessors and near contemporaries whom he particularly admired - Gluck, Schubert, Handel, Bach, Paganini and, of course, Schumann. He explored, too, his own music in similar ways the D minor Theme and Variations is an arrangement of the slow movement of his first String Sextet - and even went so far as to attempt a caricature of his own musical signature by writing the Kleines Klavierstücke, a work that, for Biret, is 'an interesting piece psychologically. That it is very agitato and altogether only 35 bars says something about him.'

It may have been due to the influence of Schumann, who preferred the tone-poem or Fantasiestück to the sonata, that Brahms decided to abandon the piano sonata altogether, but even without Schumann's prompting, it is likely Brahms would have developed in similar fashion towards freer forms; the intermezzo fourth movement of the F minor Sonata surely a clue to such possibilities.

Brahms wrote two sets of capriccios - Op 76 in 1878; Op 116 in 1892 and four sets of intermezzos - Opp 116 and 117 in 1892; Opp 118 and 119 in 1893. If one regards them as exercises in thinking aloud - to Biret, they are 'like small notes in his diary' - what astonishes is the pared-back economy of expression in the early intermezzos and the degree of sheer complexity immediately beneath the light surface grain of the capriccios. While Emanuel Ax suspects a certain autobiographical slant in the piano writing - 'It's very sad, very touching, the way it parallels Clara Schumann's performing career. As she gets older the pieces become quieter and under-emotional and more resigned. Op 119 is the last thing he wrote for piano solo. She died, and that was it ' - he is quick to caution against a too casual or overly superficial approach to these monumental miniatures. 'The most quiet and soft and unobtrusive intermezzos are incredibly difficult because of all the complexity hidden underneath.' For Idil Biret, 'The last of Op 118 is unbelievable. There are these very dark elements in No 6; you have this enormous morbidity to confront, knowing that in Brahms nothing is ever morbid. Somebody once said to me that it could have been written by Rachmaninov. How true!'

That same late collection also contained the G minor Ballade, which returns to a form Brahms had first investigated in the Four Ballades nearly four decades earlier in 1854, the same year as he wrote his Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann. The sheer variety of both these early works strongly hinted at the new directions Brahms was about to take. Inheriting the ballade form from Chopin, he seems to have exhausted its usefulness almost immediately.

The two Op 79 Rhapsodies can trace their lineage back to the early ballades. There may be some significance in the fact that his last piece for solo piano was also a rhapsody - Op 119 No4; a piece Biret regards as 'completely different. It's also a very strange piece that ends in a minor key. Starts major, ends minor. There's something unusual about that, something psychologically very important about it.'

Perhaps such dislocating incidents contribute to the occasional sense in Brahms that 'the audience', as Grove observes referring specifically to the ballades, 'is not essential'. Momentarily they also raise the question of Brahms's approach to composition: was it emotional or intellectual? For violinist Isaac Stern, 'The answer is "Yes".' By far the more revealing approach, he insists, is to look at how the music is communicating what it wants to say; the musicological imperative is all. 'The question is always to find the key to doing it as simply as possible because he does so much of it for you. When coming to the conclusion of a movement or an entire work, he brings it to a most natural conclusion that you must respect, and not try to add your own over-enthusiasm or neglect to recognize his. The only way to play Brahms is to be moved, deeply moved personally, every time you play it. If you don't feel a sense of radiant discovery each time, then you're not playing the music properly; that's the power of Brahms.'

Schumann clearly experienced the 'radiant discovery' that Stern speaks of in the series of miniature variations on a theme taken from his own Op 99 Albumblatt completed by Brahms in 1854 - 'How tender, how original,' he acclaimed them. 'How ingenious every one of them.' - but it is in the later sets of variations on themes by Handel and Paganini that the full, subtle complexity of Brahms's abilities was most eloquently expressed. For Emanuel Ax, those two sets taken together 'sum up the pianistic brilliance of Brahms. When you look at the Handel Variations - that collection of incredible virtuoso vignettes - you see all the new possibilities of his piano technique. It was a kind of manifesto on his part just as much as the Etudes were for Chopin or the Etudes d'exécution transcendante were for Liszt.'

Brahms seems to have enjoyed the freedom the flexible schematics of variations allowed him. He had used the mechanism in the slow movements of his first two piano sonatas (albeit in somewhat adulterated form) and in his Op 18 Sextet and was to readily employ the relatively unconfined form again. A set based on an original theme (Op 21 No 1), with its equal stress on harmony and melody, showed that the variation was also a vital arena for him to develop ideas about content as well as form.

Tle Op 39 Waltzes of 1865, originally written for four-hand piano and subsequently transcribed for solo piano, were 'innocent waltzes in Schubertian form' according to Brahms himself, happily betraying his unabashed fondness for the music of Johann Strauss.

Also for a mix of piano duet and solo are the four books of 21 Hungarian Dances written between 1860 and 1880. For Emanuel Ax, they offer 'brilliant, passionate, exciting, romantic' Magyar moments much as Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies do, although he does have one reservation about them: 'The two-hand versions are just so difficult. I adore these pieces but I can't manage them. I wish they weren't so hard!'

For Isaac Stern, Brahms was possibly the last great composer of the nineteenth century to successfully assimilate traditional idioms so completely into his own music. 'There is a lustiness (a good word to use) in Brahms at the same time as this reaching out to a rarefied level - for instance, in the G major Sonata which is on such a high plane; in the radiant, sunny, happy landscape of the opening of the A major Sonata; in the sort of gipsy cafe music of the finale of the G minor Piano Quartet. The only composer since who matches his mastery of form and his utterance of personal fervour from a folk base (but using another language) is Bartók. His Second Violin Concerto is the most natural one to continue in the Brahms tradition.'

The first chamber music Brahms published was the B major Piano Trio. Sketched in 1853 and finished in January of the following year, it was substantially revised in 1889. Emanuel Ax, familiar with both versions, regards the revision as being 'considerably better: it's pithier, tighter. With the revision you get the best of both worlds - Brahms young and old. I can't think of any other piece that has that kind of grand, lyrical opening to a first movement as the B major Trio does.'

Two other trios were written in 1880-82 (C major, Op 87) and 1886 (C minor, Op 101), each as different from the other as they both were from the early Op 8, a fact which presents something of a problem in any putative discussion of their relative merits, as Ax notes. 'Because they are all such individual works it's very difficult to start talking about anything like a genre in relation to them. It's hard for me to connect the C major Trio and the C minor Trio because I can only hear them as separate pieces.'

Brahms prevaricated a great deal before approaching the intimidating form of the string quartet where the expectation of precedent (not least in the example of his great idol, Beethoven) weighed heavy upon him. Indeed, a first string quartet was still some 20 years off when, in the mid-1850s, he began work on a triptych of piano quartets. While the G minor First wasn't to be finished until 1861, the Second, in A major, followed almost immediately with the composer himself giving its first public performance in Vienna in 1862. The Third, originally conceived in C sharp major, was not to be completed until 1875 when it appeared as the Op 60 in C minor. Surprisingly, perhaps, ldil Biret feels there is something of form and his utterance remote and unresolved about these works.' I have this strange feeling that he was a little too cautious in the quartets; the combinations are a little dull sometimes and there is always, even if subconsciously, a preference in the writing for the piano which compels the other instruments to function as accompaniments to it.' That's not an opinion Rainer Schmidt, first violinist with the Hagen Quartet, finds himself able to agree with. 'In Brahms,' he says, 'no one is ever subservient to anyone else. He's much too democratic for that, much too interested in writing as richly as he can.'

While there may be something in Biret's suspicion of tentativeness on Brahms's part, it does seem to overlook the extraordinary expansivity of the first two piano quartets, both of which appear to Emanuel Ax to be 'massive' and virtuosic in the extreme. 'The First Quartet is a great virtuoso piece. In some ways it is much more related to the later symphonies because the slow movement especially is so grand in conception. The A major is huge and a very ecstatic piece. The sheer length of it and that F sharp minor explosion in the middle of the slow movement is analogous to something like the Schubert C major Quintet.'

And for Ax, the bleak C minor Quartet represents a rare moment in Brahms where the connection between the music and the moment of composition is so apparent as to make it seem uniquely explicit. In such an instance the listener's relationship to the music, as nowhere else in Brahms, seems almost unbearably intrusive, voyeuristic. It is almost certainly both a declaration and a renunciation of love for Clara Schumann and as such is perhaps the most painful and heartbreaking work in the whole oeuvre. 'It was a time of real despair for him and accordingly it's a dark, dark piece. There's something about the C major ending with the F minor rather than the F major subdominant that makes it a bit like the Third Trio of Beethoven. Those are the only two pieces I can think of that have that resolution from C minor to C major but they stay minor because of the subdominant being in minor. It makes it devastatingly dark.'

Ax also mentions in passing Charles Rosen's monograph on Schoenberg (Fontana; Glasgow: 1976) in which, in Ax's words, 'he points out that in a lot of Brahms if you take away the harmony underneath and take away the other voices, a lot of the tunes are at least as tortured as anything Schoenberg ever wrote.'

That Schoenberg, of all people, made no secret of the influence of Brahms on his music is, in itself one might think, refutation enough of contemporary criticisms of him as an arch conservative. 'From Brahms,' he once said, 'I learned not to stint myself when clarity demands more space; economy, yet richness.'

In simple terms of scale, the writing of the F minor Piano Quintet was a logical progression for Brahms - an unstinting moment where clarity demanded more space. Its birth was a complicated one and its double metamorphosis to the final quintet form - via an original incarnation as a string quintet with two cellos and as a subsequent sonata for two pianos (which had even progressed to the point of public performance in Tausig in 1864) – speaks volumes about the often protracted, always painstakingly precise process through which Brahms sought perfection when he composed. To Emanuel Ax, 'It is one of the major pieces. It's a wonderful array of sounds and that kind of weirdness you hear in it is almost unprecedented except for the Beethoven quartets – maybe like something out of Op 132 - and then it blooms into this magnificent passion and the wonderful folk-song at the start of the main body of the movement. The triplet coda is a very time-honoured thing with him and there's a mathematical relationship there which he indicates in metronome markings which aren't always observed, but that makes it more exciting to have it connected that way. That's something that Mozart and Beethoven did too maybe that's a nice bow to them?'

A larger work had preceded the Piano Quintet in 1862, though this, the Op 18 B flat Sextet, was for string ensemble (two each of violins, violas and cellos). It was an audacious undertaking but a successful one and represented a paradigm shift to compositional maturity for the then 29-year-old Brahms. By the time a Second Sextet in G major appeared three years later, the problem of cello dynamics that had dogged the opening of the First (especially when played at the full forte indicated by Brahms) had been ironed out. Both works come in for praise from Isaac Stern for their 'most wonderful understanding of the sound of string instruments' and the 'moments of such gorgeous melodic lines for all the instruments, but particularly for the violin and first viola and first cello'.

A decade before, Brahms had taken his first steps towards the inevitable epiphany of the string quartet, though it was to be another decade yet before he discovered whether it was a prelude to heaven or hell. When his Op 51 was published in 1874, the long wait proved to have been worthwhile with not one but two quartets being revealed, the first of them, in C minor, a work of considerable achievement, even by Brahms's own standards. For Isaac Stern, both quartets represent 'a distillation to the clearest minimum amount of the purest music imaginable.' A third and final string quartet, in B flat major, in which the joyous tumbling over into the positively jovial is another feisty rebuttal to the dour depiction of the elder Brahms, followed a mere two years later. Having met his string quartet obligations, Brahms was able to move on, but it seems exquisitely appropriate that the central concern of his last essay in the form should be, as Rainer Schmidt observes, 'to illustrate what is possible through music. It is music about music.'

Brahms was to return to the string ensemble, but this time in quintet arrangement. His first such, in F major, was written at comparative speed in 1882. His second, eight years later, in G major, was to be his last chamber work for strings. In both the distribution of voices is less evenly balanced, but perhaps more democratically apportioned than in the quartets. 'More weight is certainly given to the first violin and first viola,' agrees Schmidt. 'So too the second violin, viola and cello; all the time they have something very interesting to contribute.'

Less haunted by the spectre of tradition in the quintets, Brahms clearly felt more able to pursue his own ideas than he perhaps had in the quartets. Rainer Schmidt again: 'It's wonderful how he manages to fill old forms with new music.' Isaac Stern concurs. 'The G major is one of the greatest works written for any group of any kind. There's a central pulse in Brahms and as long as that is kept to, it will take you from beginning to end. Within that there are many different things that can be done to use your instrument with all the variety and flexibility with which you use your voice. That's his creative genius. If you read the scores with knowledge and understanding, they are as clear as one of today 's newspaper head lines. Clearer, in fact, because they're less prejudiced.'

In the same year that Brahms had begun to work on the string quartets, he wrote his only Horn Trio (his only wind chamber work that did not employ the clarinet). Both it and the E minor Cello Sonata (Op 38), completed that same year, bespoke of his mother's death. For cellist Steven Isserlis, that grave emotional impulse in the music produces some of the most memorable sounds Brahms ever wrote.

'I adore the first movement of the E minor; it's a very perfect moment - the romantic darkness of the cello! Particularly remarkable is the way he concentrates on and contrasts the lower registers of the instrument. You have that very dark opening phrase and it's so wonderful when he moves to the A string for the vastly different second phrase where the light, the sun, comes out. Espressivo and dolce are two very contrasting marks in Brahms; he uses the whole basic range and understands it.'

Isserlis is also unstinting in his praise for Brahms's ability to recognize and realize the full sophistication of the cello throughout his chamber work. 'There's no composer who wrote more memorable tunes for the cello than he did. They're all over the place: the second theme of the G major Sextet; the slow movement of the G minor Piano Quartet; the opening of the B major Trio. He didn't use special effects - he's not Debussy or Webern - but he knew how to make it sing and in so many different ways. And if you think of the first melody of the F major Sonata, he certainly moves the cello forward there; nobody had written for cello like that before.'

That Brahms had characteristically sidestepped traditional assumptions and wrote for cello rather than violin in his first duo sonata, as much as the nature of the individual pieces themselves, tangentially, momentarily, resurrects the thorny issue of which category - classical or romantic - to label, or rather not to label, the composer with. 'His emotions were romantic but he was very much a classicist,' Isserlis observes, while insisting that the colours of Brahms's palette are uniquely his own. 'He is impossible to categorize. Brahms was Brahms and in Brahms the form is the expression. Everything is very contained, that's why it's so moving. Take the first movement of the E minor: dark and gloomy until the very powerful second theme, but it's not really until the coda, when it finally relaxes into E major - one of the great moments in cello literature – that you fully understand what he's trying to say. Set that beside the end of the last movement of the First Violin Sonata and you realize that Brahms could write  better sunsets than any other composer.'

In contrast, a second cello sonata two decades later, written during a halcyonic summer sojourn beside Lake Thun in Switzerland, could more appositely be described as a sunburst of a work, such is its engaging warmth and carefree character. 'You could almost say the first movement of the F major sounds like the work of a younger man: that full-throatedly romantic first melody and the ecstatic way it rises to the top of the cello at full throttle! In fact, all three sections in that movement are very extrovert, very full-voicedly, full-heartedly passionate.'

The F major Cello Sonata was one of three chamber works written in quick succession at Lake Thun. The other two were his Second Violin Sonata (the Op 100, A major) and the C minor Piano Trio, Op 101. Brahms had written his First Violin Sonata - in G major, Op 78 seven years earlier during another idyllic summer, this one spent at Portschauh. All three so-called Thun Sonatas, though vastly different in character, are held by common consent to deserve the appellation of masterpiece. Isaac Stern certainly thinks so.

'It is for me some of the most communicative music ever written. To a certain degree – although I'm exaggerating a little - it 's like Shakespeare who wrote not of Denmark or England, France or Scotland, but about the human condition. Today his observations are just as true as they were then. The same is true of Brahms. He was sensitive to what the human psyche can feel and could describe it with unerring accuracy. Look at the three violin sonatas and the three very different worlds they describe and you can only marvel at how complete each of them is in itself and how each looks upon a different aspect of how the human psyche operates.'

Rainer Schmidt, first violinist with the Hagen Quartet and currently preparing to record the sonatas takes a less euphoric view but holds them in just as great esteem. 'When you think that in the German-speaking countries between 1850 and 1900 there is almost nothing for violin and piano but the Brahms sonatas, and you realize what absolute masterpieces they are, the scale of his achievement begins to make itself very apparent.' But should we think of them as violin or piano sonatas? Emanuel Ax argues in favour of pianistic prominence in the case of the duo sonatas for both violin and cello combination. 'They're very much piano solo pieces with the addition of another voice. At best the violin [or cello] is an equal partner.' Interesting, then, to discover that Schmidt confesses to 'always learning the sonatas from the piano parts because it's all in the piano'. Neither man, though, is suggesting any deliberate inequality of emphasis on Brahms's part. 'He's very successful in assigning the right registers to each instrument so everything can be heard,' adds Ax but cannily observes that, 'we're not dealing with vertically oriented music here, but with a multilayered, horizontal texture.' That's a weighty consideration in any discussion of the piano-supported chamber music.

The violin sonatas, as with virtually every note Brahms wrote, show a questing, forward-moving (if not wholly forward-looking) mentality at work, as progressive on its own terms as anything else committed to score in the same period of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the emotionally blistering D minor (No 3), with its key echo of Schubert's coruscating Death and the Maiden, is that it wrenched chamber music free from the insipid domestic dilutions of the parlour room and put it back into the concert-hall, muscular and full of musical purpose. For all his transparent clarity, Brahms can and does surprise. Indeed, the constant surprise about him is how constantly surprising he can be. It suggests a fierce individuality in any given piece that articulates itself in stubborn resistance to any exegetical approach other than the purely musical. After all, 'absolute music' was absolutely all for Brahms. Rainer Schmidt readily points to an abundance of surprises in the sonatas: 'The variety and degree of rhythmic counterpoint, not even dual rhythm but sometimes three rhythms going on at the same time, in the G major; the gutsy way he starts the A major with a five-bar phrase – four in the piano plus one in the violin - when what you really want at the beginning of a sonata is an eight-bar theme; the symphonic pace of the tempo markings in the D minor where he writes allegro, something he hardly ever dares to do, usually preferring to qualify it moderato or ma non troppo.'

Arguably, the profile Brahms gave to the clarinet could also be said to represent some sort of progress, not least in the two unprecedented sonatas. Just as many of the violin works were written with Joachim in mind, so too the four clarinet chamber works had a specific inspiration. Brahms had first met and been inspired by Richard Mühlfeld when the court orchestra of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, of which he was a soloist, performed his Fourth Symphony in 1885. It was six years, though, before the A minor Trio and B minor Quintet were to be completed. For Karl Leister, who has just released his sixth account of the Quintet on disc with the Brandis Quartet on Nimbus Records, and who first recorded the work 30 years ago with the Amadeus Quartet, 'the combination of string quartet and clarinet is perhaps the most wonderful pairing between wind and string instruments ever written', and Brahms's gorgeous and expansive contribution to the genre every bit as fine as Mozart's. ' He knew how to write for the instrument and he did so in a most beautiful and wonderful way. From the high G to the low E, he used nearly four octaves. Only Spohr, in going up to high C, got closer to using the full four. So let's say Brahms used three-and-a-half octaves! Sometimes he used just a shadow of the clarinet, and not always like itself; sometimes it's as if it is the second violin, sometimes the cello or the viola. And sometimes you don 't know which instrument you're listening to because everything fits together so well.'

In 1894, Brahms wrote two sonatas for clarinet and piano, both tinged with a bittersweet melancholia. To Leister, the choice of clarinet for the ageing composer seems fated. 'The clarinet is very often a late instrument for composers - think of Mozart, Reger, Poulenc, Brahms. For me, it is like a death angel. The Quintet is not his last work, but it can be seen as his swan-song. At the end, when you hear the cry in the second last bar, it is as if you are feeling your last heartbeat.'

Brahms, conscious perhaps of the paucity of good clarinet players, wrote a version of the Quintet in which the clarinet is replaced by a viola, a substitution Leister comfortably condones ('But the version for clarinet is still the best!') though he withdraws his consent when the issue of bassoon transcriptions of the sonatas is raised. 'For such things I have no understanding. I have too much respect''

Brahms's last composition was the Eleven Chorale Preludes, an instrumental work for organ. Composed in the summer and autumn of 1896 a mere matter of months before his death, it was later posthumously published as his Op 122. Forty years previously he had written four other works for organ: a pair of fiery, extrovert Preludes and Fugues, a Fugue in A flat minor, and a Chorale Prelude and Fugue on the Chorale O Traurigkeit, O Her zeleid. 'There's nothing else quite like them in the repertoire,' says Kevin Bowyer, who has recorded them for Nimbus. 'They're thoroughly worked out, deliberately modelled on the most commonly used forms in the mainstream of organ writing, and very, very expressive indeed.'

In the century since his death, Brahms has been incrementally moving out of Beethoven's time-shortened shadow. As he at last comes fully into the light, perhaps the true scale of his own stature will finally be acknowledged and applauded. One thing is certain: in another hundred years, as Isaac Stern fervently believes, the music of Johannes Brahms will still be played and still be loved.

'What was beautiful then is beautiful now and will be beautiful forever. To put this whole conversation in a nutshell: the music of Brahms sounds inevitable and simple. It reaches conclusions in a way that satisfies the inner person. The emotions are always recognizable, never exaggerated; the quality is very humane. At his best, he always ends hopefully. Whether reflecting sunlight or storm, a happily lived moment or a sadly remembered moment, underneath it all is a basic optimism. If Beethoven was craggy mountains, extraordinary peaks and deep valleys of manic depressiveness, Brahms is like the ocean: always there and forever nurturing.'

This article originally appeared in the August 1997 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, the world's leading classical music magazine, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

Brahms – the complete guide

Part 1: orchestral music

In the first of a three-part series, Rob Cowan talks leading conductors and musicians about the special appeal of Brahms's orchestral works... Read the article

Part 3: vocal music

In the third of a three-part series, Michael Quinn talks about Brahms's vocal music with Barbara Bonney, Marcus Creed, José van Dam, Richard Hickox and Graham Johnson... Read the article

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