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A Camera Lucida Concert
Monday, March 4, 7:30pm
Conrad Prebys Concert Hall, University of California at San Diego

Jeff Thayer, violin
Che-Yen Chen, viola
Charles Curtis, cello
Reiko Uchida, piano

BRAHMS: Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25
BRAHMS: Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 26
Note: Students with ID may attend for FREE, but must be in line 30 minutes before the concert to qualify.

A note from Camera Lucida Artistic Director Charles Curtis:

A Brahms Diptych

Pairing the works of a single composer on one program affords listeners and musicians alike a sharpened focus on that composer’s creative world. Rarer yet is the opportunity to experience two works of a single composer, of the same medium and form, and composed in direct proximity to one another. For tonight's concert we are granted access to an extended moment in that composer’s output, in this case Johannes Brahms. (Read more in "Notes.")


A Brahms Diptych (A Program Note by Camera Lucida Artistic Director Charles Curtis)

Pairing the works of a single composer on one program affords listeners and musicians alike a sharpened focus on that composer’s creative world. Rarer yet is the opportunity to experience two works of a single composer, of the same medium and form, and composed in direct proximity to one another. Here we are granted access to an extended moment in that composer’s output. There are only a handful of such examples that can actually function as concert programs.
Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies carry adjacent opus numbers, Opp. 67 and 68, and he worked on them simultaneously; and his final piano sonatas form the famous triplet of Opp. 109, 110 and 111. In the world of chamber music, we find the sublime duality of Mozart’s String Quintets in C major and g minor, K. 515 and 516; after the forthright and heroic C major, Mozart felt compelled to proceed into the haunted, night-lit realms of the g-minor. With this unprecedented pairing of emotional opposites Mozart initiated the Romantic idea of the musical work as a window into the inner life of the composer, the composer himself the subject matter of his own creative process. Schubert’s two Piano Trios, Opp. 99 and 100, though not as intimately linked in their composer’s work life, show a related interest in expanding upon one medium, an urge to exhaustively explore the resources laid out on the workbench, so to speak, before moving on to other forms.

Brahms would have been aware of all these precedents; and in any event it was his habit, in the early period before his move to Vienna, to work in multiples of a medium - the two orchestral Serenades, the two String Sextets, the numerous sets of variations, the many choral works. But with the two Piano Quartets Opp. 25 and 26 we have perhaps the first answer to Mozart’s String Quintet pairing, and arguably the first two unequivocal successes in Brahms’ handling of large-scale sonata structure. In these two works, which Brahms evidently worked on in tandem over a period of years, and which were both completed by the 28-year-old composer in 1861, we hear the young master taking complete control of his craft, drawing equally on the tradition which he venerated and on the mysterious sources of originality and newness which are the mark of genius. Here the extended moment of one composer’s creative journey is at the same time his breakthrough into a domain of his own - Brahms becoming Brahms.

A diptych is strictly speaking a pair of panel paintings hinged together such that when opened out as a pair of wings, a single image is completed over the two sides. The conceit of these two great Piano Quartets forming a musical diptych relies on the question of whether we consider them as completing one another. This question we would hope to find answered in live performance, in the immediate confrontation with the work of art as a living organism projected through the prism of interpretation. And by extension, the meaning of these works to us is also only discoverable through active listening in concert. The interpretation of music - beyond its evident and copious gifts of pleasure, emotional refreshment and inspiration - also provides a critical lens, magnifying the work both in its context and in ours, commenting and elaborating on where we are and who we are in our relationship to history and to a shared cultural past.

• • •
If we imagine Brahms in fact looking back to Mozart’s Quintet pairing, which is highly likely, then we see in Brahms’ response the sides of the diptych reversed: beginning in g minor (Opus 25), and then moving up one whole step to the sunnier, more gently lyrical key of A major (Opus 26). One could imagine a double diptych of the two Mozart Quintets and the two Brahms Quartets, symmetrically arranged, with the two inner panels in g minor, and the outer panels reflecting a strikingly Schubertian modulation from C major to the major submediant, A major. But this is idle speculation. Within Brahms’ own diptych, the two works draw upon different threads of the Romantic tradition, and exhibit more differences than similarities. The similarities - beyond instrumentation and four-movement form - are quickly accounted for: monumental length; expansiveness of phrase lengths;an integral vocal quality in both the string and piano writing; absolute interchangeability of material between all instruments (this is definitely not a feature of earlier chamber music for piano and strings); and recurring hints of so-called gipsy-inflected material, culminating in the alla Zingarese finale of Opus 25. The differences are more subtle and variegated: atmospheric, dramaturgical, evocational. Whereas the g minor summons up a Gothic world of hushed melancholy and furtive suspense, the A major opens into the reassuring surroundings of the shared, the social and the domestic.

But in fact both works traverse, perhaps in a pattern of reciprocity, the two sides of Brahms’ psyche: the melancholic-solitary, and the amiable and warmly affectionate. Both sides pivot on the extraordinary circumstances of his lifelong yearning for an inaccesible happiness, his love for Clara Schumann. Like a mediaeval knight, Brahms held steadfastly to an idealized love for the Lady he could never posess, his forbearance a spur to greater and more profound love. And this is the diptych of Brahms’ persona, closed to the world in his personal sphere, but unfolded for universal display in the sublimated form of his music.
• • •
Opus 25 seems to gather force and momentum over its entire length. The leanness of the opening material builds through extension, not mass; tiny motivic elements, sometimes no more than a two-note sequence, are spun out exhaustively in combinatorial patterns. The beautiful coda sets a spiderweb-like barriolage figure in the violin against triplet ornaments in the piano; a final surging up of the opening theme promises massiveness, but recedes to a quiet exit. The Intermezzo, ornate and detailed, presents a quietly restless, writhing texture, opening to the cautious ebullience of the Trio. The slow movement builds further: not, as is usual, a period of restraint or rest in the larger form of the work, but effusive, an outpouring, full-throated. One imagines a group of impassioned singers surrounding the youthful Brahms at the piano, holding forth for all they were worth. The middle section, at first like a military fanfare in the distance, escalates to truly symphonic scale and massiveness. And the finale is utter frenzy; when it seems it can go no further, the piano plunges via a cadenza-like descent into sudden silence, as if the dancer had collapsed in exhaustion; gradually revived by the ministrations of the strings, the movement ends once more in wild affirmation.

Brahms’ emulation of Beethoven is evident in the careful curating of motivic development as a kind of self-replication, self-formation, the blossoming of sonata form as an organic emergence from an internal source. This drama of becoming is captured by the untranslatable German concept of Bildung. But we must not forget the drama of atmosphere and texture which Brahms took from Chopin, or from Chopin via Schumann. The Intermezzo in particular lives in an imagined world of aristocratic dance and chivalry, where rank is bestowed on the basis of charm and the exactly appropriate dosage of rubato.
• • •

Opus 26 begins in an aspect of quiet contentment, the piano’s hymn-like chords setting the background to a simple melodic elaboration in the cello, stationary, in no hurry to go anywhere in particular. Immediately the roles are reversed, the strings restate the chordal introit with a sound reminiscent of ancient consort music, and the piano gently embarks on one of those characteristically Brahmsian melodies that does not want to stop, extending bar for bar and modulation for modulation, longing for eternity. When the recapitulation finally wraps its way around again, the piano’s hymn sounds an octave lower, a sign, perhaps, of even greater devotion, humility, groundedness. The touching Poco adagio sets up a lilting, pulsing rhythm of the utmost tenderness; fantasia-like diminished chord arpeggiations lead to stabbing outbursts of emotion, subsiding again. The scherzo is all innocence, sequences of circular melodies in unison, the high violin a sort of whistling overtone. The Trio section sets up a tidy canon, almost a game of tag; the atmosphere is one of idealized childlikeness, playfulness, a musical analog to genre depictions of cherubs and angels at play with flutes and harps. The Finale again draws on the vehemence of eastern European and gipsy folk music; with the accented appoggiaturas lending a spicy, wrong-note raucousness to the texture, we are again in an imagined dance hall where a dizzying potpourri of dances - verbunkos, galop, can-can - seem to alternate with only the merest of intervallic threads linking them. The work finally opens outward to unrestrained, unconcealed joy, a tableau of celebration.

Camera Lucida #5
March 4, 2013

Online sales for this performance have now been discontinued. Please call the Ticket Office at 619.235.0804.

  • Overview
  • Notes