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The Brahms Third Piano Quartet offers plenty of interpretive temptations. A young Brahms began the piece during Robert Schumann’s last illness, when Brahms was torn between despair for his friend and love for his friend’s wife. He then tabled the project for nearly two decades before picking it up again and making thorough revisions (including lowering the key a half step), resulting in the current work. An older Brahms confessed to his publisher in characteristically sarcastic terms: “On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it. Now you can form some conception of the music! I’ll send you my photograph for the purpose.”

The large-scale architecture of this piece is clear and convincing: two massive outer movement framing two shorter inner movements. And yet there is a kind of unsettled quality that begins immediately with arresting opening octaves in piano. The piano gradually pulls the ensemble together in an introduction that clearly establishes the substantial dimensions of the work before leading into the body of the movement, whose first theme is conventionally assertive, the second conventionally lyrical. Yet all is not straightforward within the sonata form: the second theme undergoes a series of variations, and the recapitulation is in the key of G rather than C. This goes beyond a technical issue, as the function of the recapitulation – to land the listener back in stable ground – is compromised. Instead Brahms takes another journey to get back into the primary key, leaving a sense of something still to be decided.

The subsequent movements pick up on the various moods that flitted in and out of the first movement. Of Brahms’s 24 chamber music pieces, 16 include piano, and each takes advantage of the instrument’s power, range, and contrast with the strings. In the Scherzo, it pushes the ensemble from a skittery beginning to a forceful ending, which in turn emphasizes the more introspective space of the tender Andante, where the piano plays a friendly supporting role to the strings’ warm legato and decorative use of pizzicato. The violin takes the lead for the last movement, an extended Allegro that begins with a deceptively simple motive. Underneath, the piano provides restless energy, a role that continues to develop as Brahms takes full advantage of the possibilities for spirited interchange with the strings.

— Susan Key is a musicologist and frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs, specializing in American music.