"A perfect synthesis of Classical and Romantic musical styles" is how David Finckel, cellist of the Emerson String Quartet, characterizes the music of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Finckel explains that Brahms's music is built with Classic integrity, with this structural support laying the foundation for a heightened Romantic sensibility. It's an idyllic mix for Finckel, who joins the rest of the Emersons (violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, and violist Lawrence Dutton) in two all-Brahms concerts this season at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater.
"With a Romantic like Schumann," Finckel explains, "I always get the sense that the music he wrote is very much about himself, how he was feeling. With a great Classic composer like Beethoven, say, you get a feeling that his music has a personal quality, but that it's not about him: it's about the universe, about the earth — about existence itself. Brahms is kind of a hybrid of those two. His music has all the emotion and sensuality of the Romantic period, but it also has this universal strength in that it's not really about Brahms, it's about things larger than the composer."
Speaking as a string player, Finckel confides that there is no more gratifying chamber music to play than that of Brahms, whose understanding of how to write music for strings reaches the pinnacle of craft. "It forces us [string players] to utilize the qualities of the violin, viola and cello that those instruments do the best — which is the imitation of singing voices."
The only regret about Brahms' music for string quartet, Finckel says, is that there is not more of it to play. Before Brahms penned the three string quartets extant today, he destroyed at least 12 that he felt did not meet his standard. In addition to the string quartets, however, Brahms gifted us with a piano quintet, three piano quartets, two string sextets, trios, works for piano four-hands, and songs — all of which, according to Finckel, are of "incredibly high quality."
The Emerson String Quartet recorded the three Brahms String Quartets and Piano Quintet earlier this year (on Deutsche Grammophon), and is planning a recording of the sextets. Finckel describes the recording candidly: "For us at this point in our career, this felt like the right time to do Brahms and try and do him justice, which has been a great privilege for the Emerson Quartet."
The right time to see the Emerson play Brahms is January 20 at the first Rose Theater concert; the program includes Brahms' String Quartets, Nos. 1 in C minor and 2 in A minor (Op. 51), and the Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34.
"It's well known that Brahms had this Beethoven phobia stuck on him," says Finckel, referring to Brahms' anxiety over writing his first string quartet (and symphony) in the wake of the mighty penultimate 'B,' "and there are certain hallmarks of Beethoven that surface all the time in Brahms. His First Symphony was in the key of C minor, which of course is a great Beethoven key [think Fifth Symphony; the Pathétique Piano Sonata] and he wrote his First String Quartet in C minor as well!"
"Perhaps," Finckel continues, "Brahms felt some kind of security in this key. I can only surmise that it provided him an emotional comfort level." Finckel notes the difference in coloration from the stormy C minor of the First Quartet and the sadder, more wistful A minor of the Second String Quartet, a shift which a listener can pick up, even without the benefit of perfect pitch.
Grounding the January 20 program, the Piano Quintet looms large. "The Piano Quintet has this monumental feel to it," Finckel says. "If you asked me for the most monumental, carved-in-granite chamber music piece I could think of, I might well have thought of the Brahms Piano Quintet. It boasts an iron-clad Classical integrity, an absolutely daunting Scherzo movement. The slow movement is heavenly, often played by itself as an encore because it's really a world unto its own. The last movement is much more in a gypsy flavor and ends in an unpredictably explosive fashion." The Emerson will be joined for the Piano Quintet by pianist Glibert Kalish, who, according to Finckel, shares Brahms' Classical integrity and Romantic spirit, along with fluency in music from every period.
The final Brahms String Quartet, No. 3 in B-flat major, opens the second Emerson all-Brahms program on April 6. More challenging that its predecessors, the third quartet achieves a new level of compositional maturity for Brahms, contains sophisticated modulations, and the last movement's set of variations recall the music of the first movement, which, Finckel notes, is "a very Beethovenesque thing to do."
Finckel characterizes the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, which follows in the program, as a "gloomy piece" written late in the composer's life, when he was often unhappy. Brahms in fact would not have been composing at all at this time were he not inspired by a clarinetist to create what Finckel describes as a masterpiece and "a sublime experience." The Quartet will be joined by clarinetist David Shifrin, whose breadth and depth of musical experience — he played with the Cleveland Orchestra before embarking on his chamber-music career — makes for considered interpretations. Shifrin served as the Artistic Director of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center from 1992 to 2004.
If the Clarinet Quintet is gloomy, Brahms' Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18, which will close the April 6 program, is decidedly sunny. Finckel says the feel of the piece, which is symphonic in its scope, is one of "great warmth and vitality." He takes personal pleasure in being able to close with the Brahms Sextet, because the cello finds itself, as it often does in the sextet genre, in a role of great prominence.
Ben Finane is Managing Editor of Playbill's Classic Arts division and the author of a book on Handel's Messiah, forthcoming from Continuum Books.