The two early piano quartets by Brahms are like chalk and cheese, so it was interesting to hear them side by side in a concert, played at the Wigmore Hall by members of the Staatskapelle Streichquartett and Elisabeth Leonskaja. Written by the composer when he was in his mid-twenties, they have an expansive youthful quality which was ably captured in these solid performances.

Elisabeth Leonskaja
© Marco Borggreve

The Piano Quartet no. 2 in A major, Op.26 was first on the programme. It’s a work that has echoes of Schubert in its long lines and harmonic shifts, as well as its “heavenly length”. In this performance, tempi were relaxed and the approach was generally sunny. A last-minute change of violinist, as Wolfram Brandt was indisposed, may have changed the overall timbre of the ensemble, with some imbalances in the mix.

However, it was Leonskaja who really set the tone and atmosphere of the evening. Of Leonskaja's many strengths, her warmth and self-effacing presence were invaluable in Brahms. She was always at the service of the ensemble and the music, with a naturally flowing approach to phrasing and depth of sound. The fact that she occasionally tripped over notes doesn't seem an issue when the whole package is so satisfying.

The very long opening movement was held together well, the stormy development section built up effectively with much passion. The beautifully illusive slow movement unwound with ease and the oddly muted Scherzo was well characterised. The Finale has the character of a gypsy dance, but has its tentative moments, all achieved here convincingly.

The Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor, Op.25 generally achieves a more inspired musical level than its partner. The tone of the work is highly strung and in tragic. It was revered by no less than Arnold Schoenberg, who famously described Brahms as being “a progressive” at a time when his music was generally looked down on as being regressive. Schoenberg brilliantly orchestrated the work in the 1930s.

Leonskaja was joined in this performance by the second violinist of the quartet, Krzysztof Specjal, which made for a more homogenous string sound than we had heard in the first half. Their approach to this great work was particularly impassioned. The fiery first movement had a real sense of urgency. The fleet of foot Intermezzo that followed didn’t try to smooth the edges and was brilliantly held together by the ensemble. The remarkably intense slow movement, written shortly after the death of Brahms’ mentor, Robert Schumann, had a real sense of loss, as well as revelling in the thicker textures reminiscent of the older composer’s piano quartet. The show-stopping Finale is the wildest movement that Brahms wrote, with its stabbing gypsy dance rhythms, delivered here in an invigorating interpretation of this much loved masterpiece.

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