Brahms, Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60, “Werther”

Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897

Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60, “Werther”, 1875

When Brahms submitted the score of his third piano quartet to his longtime publisher, he wrote that the cover should show picture a man holding a gun to his head, such was the black melodrama of the music and the quartet’s eventual nickname after Goethe’s young, suicidal Werther. C-minor is a favorite of both Brahms and Beethoven, a key Brahms also used for his first string quartet and his first symphony. The “Werther” quartet vies with the first piano quartet in g minor and the massive piano quintet in f minor for its thrilling intensity, its relentless rhythms and its delicious severity.

Suspense and surprise attack characterize much of the music beginning with the opening movement’s brooding introduction and the startling crash of the main theme pounding with thunder and ominous rumblings in the pulsing base ostinato. A number of obstinate rhythmic reiterations course through this practically violent music. Still, the illuminated, lyrical Brahms shines through the second theme in poised, majestic sweeps and a new glittering ostinato. The dramatic contrasts of sonata form reprise the tragic theme in gigantic strides of fully realized might, countered yet again by a richly expanded second theme almost suggesting that light will triumph over dark. But an underlying tension erodes the lyricism as rich romantic sweeps, like a whirlpool, draw the music into down into the deep gravity of C-minor ending with a chilling death knell.

The apparent prevailing severity ensues with a madly driving scherzo, again, featuring a pulsing, persistent rhythm that trails a boiling wake of eddies and currents in the form of complex textures and rhythms. A very brief trio-like section only slightly stalls this ominous momentum. In a one-two punch, the first two movements seem to seal the fate of this deadly quartet. Yet, finally, the third-movement andante brings soothing relief as the cello sings a limpid, long-limbed melody in the manner of a lied or late intermezzo. The violin joins creating an exquisite duet with Brahms’ characteristic harmonies in 3rds and 6ths warmly supporting two lovers rapt with song.

The finale begins with the tensile lightness of Mendelsohn and a sinuous, spinning theme only slightly worried by the return of C-minor. Eventually, mighty quartet textures restore a stormy gravity worth of matching the dense weight of the first two movements. Suspense and latent tension continually undermine even the most flowing lyricism of passing chorales while muscular scoring for piano and string trio ratchets the sound into epic proportions. The conclusion presents a magical transformation of texture, color and mood that keeps you hanging until the very last, unexpected note.

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