Johannes Brahms

String Quintet No. 1 in F major ("Spring"), Op. 88

    Description by John Keillor

    At the time Brahms wrote his String Quintet No. 1 in F major (1882), the models for the genre were exemplified in the works of Schubert and Mozart. Schubert calls for a configuration of two violins, one viola, and two cellos; Mozart calls for two violins, two violas, and one cello, the instrumentation adopted by Brahms for his First Quintet.

    The three-movement Quintet is generated entirely from ideas contained in the central Grave ed appassionato movement, which in turn evolved from a long-aborted piano work. In the mid-1850s Brahms had written a sarabande and gavotte for piano in a neo-Baroque style, the manuscripts of which Brahms eventually burned (along with a great quantity of other material). What the composer did not count on, however, was that a number of his friends and professional acquaintances retained copies of the same work. It was not until the twentieth century that scholars unearthed the original piano pieces and discovered their connection to the String Quintet.

    In neither the piano works nor the Quintet's middle movement is the Baroque influence difficult to hear. With the original tempi intact, the middle movement functions in much the same manner as a scherzo and trio. Brahms creates further tension by casting the two dances in the keys of A major and C sharp major, respectively, creating conflict and ambiguity as to which tonal center will prevail; ultimately, the A major sarabande/scherzando emerges victorious.

    The entire Quintet is a bizarre collection whose very nature would seem to defy cohesion; still, it does indeed hold together, a testament to the composer's masterful handling of its diverse elements. The thoroughly Romantic opening movement is not particularly unusual for Brahms, and there is little in it to betray the work's "Baroque" origins. The third movement is more forthright in its presentation of the source material, here treated with distinctive humor as a collection of Baroque textures that fall all over one another in a sort of organized chaos. It begins with a fugal subject, or fragment of a subject, that attempts to unfold but cannot get to the point of establishing rhythmic surety. Despite the fugal subject's by-the-book opening in a pattern of tonic-dominant entrances, the accompanying chords that are supposed to provide a propulsive rhythmic edge keep coming in at the "wrong" time, diluting the flow. This continues until the accompaniment assumes a greater normalcy; by then, however, it is too late and the fugue has given up. The music assumes a homophonic, fully nineteenth century guise that clearly embodies the music of Brahms' own time. The work as a whole seems to be the composer's humorous retraction of his musical revivalism, a flight of historical fancy that ends as he is finally wrenched back into his own century.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Allegro non troppo ma con brio
    2. Grave ed appassionato - Allegretto vivace - Tempo I - Presto - Tempo I
    3. Finale. Allegro energico

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 B Records LBM 012
    2018 Hänssler Classic HC 16084
    2017 Praga / Praga Digitals PRD 250348
    2017 PentaTone Classics PTC 5186663
    2016 Audite AUD 97724
    2014 Hyperion CDA 67900
    2014 Foghorn Classics FCL 2012
    2013 Daphne / Daphne DAPHNE 1045
    2012 Onyx / Onyx Classics ONYX 4093
    2012 Deutsche Grammophon
    2012 MDG / Zebralution
    2010 Helios / Hyperion 55369
    2010 Decca
    2009 Deutsche Grammophon 477 818-3
    2009 Onyx ONYX 4043
    2008 Hyperion 44331/42
    2008 Brilliant Classics 93554
    2007 Brilliant 93181
    2006 Claves 509609
    2005 Nonesuch
    2004 Naxos 8 554272
    2004 MDG 3071251
    2004 Brilliant 92392
    2003 Brilliant 99800
    2003 Deutsche Grammophon 474358
    2001 Sony Music Distribution 89737
    2001 Pan 510127
    1999 Camerata Records 30CM534
    1998 Delos 3198
    1997 Deutsche Grammophon 453 420-2GH
    1997 Nimbus 5515
    1996 Biddulph Recordings LAB120/1
    1996 Philips 454 073-2PB11
    1996 Deutsche Grammophon 449611
    1996 Sony Music Distribution 68476
    1996 Hyperion 66804
    1996 Naxos 553635
    1995 Philips 446172
    1994 Hungaroton 11591
    1992 Nonesuch 79068
    1990 Deutsche Grammophon 419875
    Vox Allegretto 8010
    Brilliant Classics 93554/12
    Brilliant 99800/3
    Azzurra Music 11002
    Brilliant 92392/9
    Brilliant 93181/17
    Philips 426094