Johannes Brahms – Piano Quintet in F minor

Despite it now being considered the crowning achievement of Brahms’ chamber works, it took him a number of attempts for this startling work to reach its final form. Originally written for five stringed instruments, he then transcribed it for two pianos, before finally resolving on piano, two violins, viola and cello, following much correspondence and encouragement from Clara Schumann (pianist, composer, and wife of Robert) and Hermann Levi (a conductor and friend of Richard Wagner).

But it was worth the hard graft. The resultant marriage of forces provide percussiveness from the piano and gutsy strings, that together propel this work along. It’s hard to imagine it was ever conceived otherwise.

The work begins with a plaintive unison statement that suggests contentment, but it soon becomes possessed as a piano motif snaps away, and the movement races off in its devilish grip. A spiralling motion that moves down step by step seems to swirl us towards the depths of the instruments’ most murky textures. The same chromatic rushes return towards the end of the final movement, as modulations become more frantic, and we plunge headfirst to the finish.

Nowhere is the pounding piano more effective than the third movement, a Scherzo, where it provides a demonic, driving motion using a monotone hunting horn call. The start of the final movement is the most desolate moment of the whole work, with some heart-wrenching harmonies. But after this first section, force seems irresistible, and violence once again takes hold.

The influence of Franz Schubert is plain to hear, both in terms of the structure and instrumentation of the work as a whole (recalling as it does Schubert’s own String Quintet in C major), but also in the powerful outbursts that bubble over to wrestle control of more lyrical moments. Darkness overrides the work in many forms; as tragedy, as hopelessness, and as a snarling, bloodthirsty dog.

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