Brahms Piano Quartet in G Minor

Friends Of Music Concerts was proud to present a special performance of the Brahms Quartet for Piano and Strings in G minor, Op. 25 in December 2020 as part of our Chamber Music of Lincoln Center series. The piece was performed by Wu Han, piano, David Finckel, cello, Arnaud Sussmann, violin and Paul Neubauer, viola. That limited run has now ended.

Below you will find the program notes for that performance with an insightful discussion of the composition. Friends of Music Concerts will present a live concert by Wu Han and David Finckel with Philip Setzer on September 21, 2020 in Westchester, New York. We hope to see you there. You can learn more about that performances — and listen to another of their recordings — on our page for this concert.

Until then, you can enjoy this recording of the Brahms Piano Concerto in G minor as performed by the Faure Quartet courtesy of YouTube.

Program Notes

Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

(Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany; died April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria)

I. Allegro

II. Intermezzo: Allegro ma non troppo – Trio: Animato

III. Andante con moto

IV. Rondo all Zingarese: Presto

Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor, op. 25 was composed in 1861 and published in 1863. It was dedicated to Baron R. von Dalwigk. The first performance was in Hamburg, with Clara Schumann at the piano.

Approximate duration: 40 minutes

In 1862, the twenty-nine-year-old composer and pianist Johannes Brahms settled in Vienna, the capital of the western musical world. He introduced himself to that city’s musical elite with his Piano Quartet in g minor, the first of his eventual three. Members of the Hellmesberger Quartet, one of Vienna’s leading chamber ensembles, read the work with the composer at the piano; at its conclusion, the violinist Joseph Hellmesberger leapt from his chair, enthusiastically proclaiming, “This is the heir of Beethoven!”

The Quartet documents Brahms’s early maturity, in which, nearing his thirtieth birthday, the composer was able to fully assimilate the influences of Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert into a fully formed compositional voice. This period featured a generous trove of outstanding chamber works: two String Sextets, opp. 18 and 36; the Opus 34 Piano Quintet; the Opus 38 Cello Sonata; the Opus 40 Horn Trio; and the first two Piano Quartets, opp. 25 and 26. (Indeed, Brahms would not produce his first symphony until 1876, explaining, when pressed, “You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the footsteps of a giant like Beethoven!”)

Opus 25 is best known for its rousing finale, the famous Rondo alla Zingarese (Gypsy Rondo). The movement’s irresistible refrain, reflective of Brahms’s lifelong fascination with Hungarian folk music, moreover reveals the hand of a master tunesmith, able to dash off a hit with ease.

Yet from its opening breath, the Quartet demonstrates extraordinary craft—worthy, indeed, of the mantle of Beethoven, the composer who built his terrifying Fifth Symphony from four innocuous notes. The G-minor Piano Quartet begins with a four-note fragment, presented by the piano in skeletal octaves—followed by a similar four notes, inverted (upside-down); then the inverted fragment again, transposed down a fourth; then a final time, but with the second and third notes voiced as a chord.

In Beethovenian fashion, the sighing half-step gesture that closes each of these successive fragments serves as a generative cell as the movement takes shape.

Indeed, a close listen to each of the Quartet’s four movements implicates this half-step throughout the whole of the work. It defines the melodic contour of the Intermezzo’s opening melody: a statement of quiet strength, voiced in muted strings, piano, dolce ed espressivo.

The theme that begins the ravishing Andante con moto, like a Baroque ornament in slow motion, wreathes around an ascending half-step.

On arriving at the Rondo alla Zingarese, the astute ear will detect, not only the seminal half-step, but the longer four-note gesture that began the Quartet.

So does Brahms’s most viscerally seductive music prove to likewise be the fruit of his most cerebral scheme. This tour de force of a final movement, rich with ear candy (including a piano cadenza, evocative of the cimbalom), charts no less an emotional journey than the Quartet at large—announcing, truly, Beethoven’s heir, but also a unique and powerful musical voice in its own right. —© 2019 Patrick Castillo

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