Brahms Quartets Review- A complete set by a completely remarkable chamber ensemble

On Sunday, April 10, 2016, world renowned and much-decorated Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and his acclaimed fellow musicians, James Ehnes, violin, Tabea Zimmermann, viola and Clemens Hagen, cello, performed a thrilling all Brahms concert, his three piano quartets (Opus. 25, 26 and 60) at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago.

The two and one-half hour concert was lyrically beautiful, led by the ardent Andsnes who took the lead from the very beginning with the rich and complex No. 1 in G minor, sustained control through the less commonly performed but densely romantic No. 2 in A major and held it until the last notes of what many believe to be composer Johannes Brahms' paean to Clara Schumann, the more compact but no less thrilling No. 3 in C minor. Andsnes, who has attained rock star status in Norway, is a pianist at the very peak of his considerable powers. Confident and strong, his hands like sculpted birds, he was a joy to hear and to behold.

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes; photo courtesy Oezguer Albayrak

 

The Piano Quartet in G minor, Op.25, composed by Brahms between 1856 and 1861 premiered in 1861 in Hamburg, with Clara Schumann playing the piano. It was also performed in Vienna the following year by the Hellmesberger Quartet with Brahms himself at the piano. The quartet, orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg in 1937, is structured in four movements. The allegro begins immediately with the first theme for piano alone, with the other instruments soon joining and developing an additional 5 themes.  Secondly, the intermezzo and trio, which contains consistently repeated eighth notes creating an almost agitated effect. Thirdly, the slow andante, with a very poetic first idea and a second idea bringing back the repeated eighth notes from the intermezzo, and then presenting  a second theme which is rhythmic, exuberant and energetic. Finally, the fourth movement, or rondo, (marked “presto”), whose subtitle “Rondo alla zingarese” has given it the nickname “Gypsy Rondo’; like many of Brahms’ endings, it contains a very rapid, rhythmic simple tonal idea. This movement is notably difficult to play, rhythmically and metrically complex; when the ensemble came to the end, there were spontaneous calls of “Bravo” and audible gasps of delight from the audience.

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, violinist James Ehnes, Tabea Zimmermann, viola player, and Clemens Hagen, cellist; photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

The Piano Quartet in A major, Op. 26, was completed in 1861, and premiered in November 1863 by the Hellmesberger Quartet with the composer playing the piano. Lasting approximately 55 minutes, it’s the composer’s longest piece of chamber music, performed immediately after the intermission. The first movement, allegro non troppo, is in sonata form. The second movement, poco adagio, is in rondo form. The third movement, scherzo: poco allegro, is a scherzo and trio in compound ternary form, where both the scherzo and trio are in sonata form. Finally, the fourth movement, allegro, is in sonata form with foreshortened recapitulation. The main theme of this quartet has been described by Orrin Howard, Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as four piano-alone measures “that float in gentle triplets and regular eighth notes, met by cello at the fifth measure, with an important, frequently present scale figure. This benign lyricism is soon to rouse the piano to a powerful outburst”. On Sunday, this reviewer frequently observed Andsnes’ hands moving with enormous strength, propelled by his back and shoulders, his rapt face bent forward, moving through the romantic drama of this piece.

James Ehnes on violin, Leif Ove Andsnes on piano, Tabea Zimmermann on viola, and Clemens Hagen on cello; photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

The Piano Quartet in C minor, known as the Werther Quartet, was completed much later than the first two, in 1875, and also consists of four movements. The first, allegro non troppo, in sonata form, begins with the piano playing bare octaves, and then the three others play the first theme, a “sighing” motive, which many have speculated is a musical utterance of the name “Clara”, the wife of composer Robert  Schumann, herself a composer, pianist, and lifelong friend, colleague,  and love interest of Brahms. Also contained within the first movement is Brahm’s transposed version of Robert Schumann’s “Clara theme”, on which both Brahms and Clara had previously written variations. Next, the piece sweeps into a tempestuous scherzo in the second section, followed by the andante in E major, the only movement of the quartet not in C minor. Finally, the finale, with the piano accompaniment beginning immediately, ends with the music quietly subsiding , the piano playing one last descending chromatic scale, until the piano and strings reach their final notes. Two sudden C major chords complete this quartet, after which  the audience exploded with applause, calling out “Leif, Leif”, and “Yay!”

James Ehnes, Leif Ove Andsnes, Tabea Zimmermann and Clemens Hagen; photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

Throughout the remarkable performance, Clemens Hagen,  award-winning Austrian cellist, a soloist who has toured throughout  the world, and  a professor at the Mozarteum since 1989, dressed in white tie and tails, sat  stage right across from violin and viola, and resembled the famous statue of Beethoven in Vienna. The leonine white head nodding and drooping as he sometimes gently, sometimes ferociously, always proudly plied the bow. His entire body bent and swayed with the effort; he at all times appeared to be listening to the cello, the instrument an extension of his person. By contrast,  Canadian concert violinist James Ehnes, dressed (as was Andsnes) in a dark business suit, sat stage left, the beautiful Stradivarius tucked securely under his chin, often smiling gently, but upright and still, only his right arm flying. The winner of 9 Junos, a Grammy and a Gramaphone award, the brilliant violinist stood in at the last minute for Christian Tetzlaff, awaiting an imminent birth, and performed admirably. Tabea Zimmermann, German viola player, sat center, clad in vibrant black and red, playing the superb instrument she won at competition in Paris in 1983. This  international prize winner and professor since 2002  of viola and chamber music at the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music in Berlin has performed with numerous major orchestras. Her calm yet enthusisastic manner rounded out the truly magnificent concert.

Clemens Hagen, James Ehnes, Tabea Zimmermann, and Leif Ove Andsnes; photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

 For more wonderful music from the Chicago Symphony and it's varied series, go to www.cso.com

 

 

 

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