December 13 — 7:30 p.m.
Venue: Kresge Auditorium
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 30
Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet
Yura Lee, violin
Ida Levin, violin
Marcus Thompson, viola
Ronald Thomas, cello
Mihae Lee, piano
Enjoy with us the compelling pairing in the first of two concerts at MIT of works by the real Brahms and the man known as the Russian Brahms, Sergei Taneyev. The many biographical and musical intersections of these two great Romantics, not to mention the physical resemblance, promise an unforgettable experience.
We begin with the Brahms Clarinet Quintet which was premiered to such applause that the Adagio movement was performed again before the musicians were allowed to leave the stage. Taneyev’s Piano Quintet puts up a fight on a grand scale with more sound than one could ever expect from just five instruments.
Our program today features late works from two composers who, while coming from different cultural worlds, were notably similar in their approach to composition. Both men were upholders of Classical standards at a time when the musical worlds in which they lived were moving in other directions. Both were superb craftsmen. Both had studied and mastered counterpoint, which became a prominent feature of their works. When it comes to reputation, though, they diverge. Brahms of course is a beloved giant of 19th-century European music, but Tanayev largely has been overshadowed in the West by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and other Russian composers who were his peers. Yet his compositions, in addition to being models of technical mastery, are very appealing, and a delightful discovery for anyone unfamiliar with his works.
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 (1891)
Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet is a late-in-life work that in many ways is a brilliant exemplar of all that he had achieved. By 1890, Brahms had begun telling friends that he was giving up composing—he was simply having too much difficulty developing new ideas. His resolution did not last long, though. Like Mozart before him, he was inspired by a clarinetist to write one of his greatest works. Early in 1891 he spent a week at an arts festival in Meiningen, at which he met Richard Mühlfeld, the brilliant principal clarinetist of the Meiningen orchestra. Brahms and Mühlfeld became friends, and Mühlfeld entertained Brahms with performances of many works, including Weber’s Clarinet Concerto and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Brahms was smitten by Mühlfeld’s exceptionally sweet tone and by the unique sound of the clarinet, with its rich three-octave range, its endless nuances of color and mood, and its huge textural palette. Inspiration began to flow once more, and that summer Brahms composed two pieces for Mühlfeld: the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, and what he called “a far greater piece of foolishness,” the magnificent B minor Clarinet Quintet.
The Clarinet Quintet has been called Brahms’s autumnal masterpiece, the reflective work of an aging master. “Autumnal,” however, while accurately suggesting a rueful sadness, does not fully convey the rich emotional range and the energy of this expansive, tautly constructed work. While the overall mood is one of quiet nostalgia, there are many moments of urgency and passion. From its earliest measures, the first movement sets the stage for much of what will follow. It presents two of the themes that will recur in various guises throughout the four movements. It establishes an ambiguous shifting between major and minor modes that will persist throughout the Quintet. And it introduces the clarinet with a deliciously slow upward sweep that presages the riches to come. The clarinet’s affinity for color is further demonstrated in the second movement—where a sweet, calm song gives way to a floridly ornamented, Hungarian-style rhapsody—and in the third, with its flowing andantino and rhythmical presto. In the last movement Brahms turns to a favorite form, a theme and five variations, before ending with a moving coda that brings back the Quintet’s opening theme. It’s a deft summing up, with variations that are, in Jan Swafford’s words, “portraits of the clarinet in its nuances of timbre, articulation, and dynamics, ending on a dying series of chords, piercingly lonely.” Other effects add to the sense of something coming to an end. Each movement, for example, ends either piano or pianissimo, and the first movement as well as the last closes on a somber note.
Mühlfeld (whom Brahms had affectionately nicknamed “Fräulein Klarinette”) premiered the Quintet that fall in Berlin, to great acclaim. Clara Schumann, always an enthusiast for Brahms’s works, described its impact on her: “How the subtle fusion of the instruments, with the soft and insistent wail of the clarinet above them, lays hold of one. The joy that I had survives in my heart and for that I am grateful.”
Sergei Taneyev (1856–1915)
Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 30 (1911)
Go into a Russian concert hall and you’re likely to see, alongside busts of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, one of Sergei Taneyev. His presence there reflects the homeland fame of this admired teacher, pianist, and composer. Often called “the Russian Brahms” for his mastery of formal technique, Taneyev from his earliest years was hailed for his great musical gifts. He entered the Moscow Conservatory at the age of nine, studied composition with Tchaikovsky, and became, at his graduation in 1875, the first pupil to win gold medals in both composition and piano performance. He earned early notice as a pianist when in 1875, while still a student, he gave a virtuoso performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto. Later that year he gave the Moscow premiere of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, which so pleased Tchaikovsky that he dedicated the concerto to the young pianist. It was the beginning of a close friendship between Tchaikovsky and his favorite pupil.
When Tchaikovsky left the conservatory a few years later, Taneyev took over his composition classes. He spent the next quarter-century as an enormously influential teacher, whose pupils included Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, and whose ideas influenced Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Like Brahms, he also plunged into an intensive study of the great contrapuntists, especially Bach and the Renaissance composers. His mastery of counterpoint resulted in a massive two-volume work that Koussevitsky called “one of the greatest musical treatises ever written.” As a composer, although he wrote an opera and several symphonies, his primary interest was chamber music, especially chamber music that included a piano part for himself. Not surprisingly, contrapuntal mastery is a distinguishing feature of his works, but so is expressive warmth.
Taneyev’s exceptional gifts are on display in his monumental Piano Quintet in G minor, a pinnacle of his composing career. It is a powerful work that combines technical brilliance with emotional impact. The massive sonata-form opening movement—which can run to 18 minutes or more—begins with a long, slow introduction that contains much of the material that will be developed in the dynamic Allegro that follows. The piano launches the Allegro and also takes the lead at the beginning of each of the movement’s sections, introducing the development with a stormy repeat of the opening theme, and marking the start of both the recapitulation and the coda with six loud bass chords. Vigorous and lyrical themes alternate throughout this dramatic, polyphonically rich, technically demanding movement. Taneyev shows his ability to charm in the effervescent Scherzo, which features bouncy rhythms and a lovely trio. Then comes the Largo, a stately passacaglia that is one of Taneyev’s great technical achievements. Over a descending theme that is repeated more than 40 times in the bass, he weaves elaborate, constantly varied images, in a dazzling contrapuntal display. This remarkable movement is followed by a rousing Finale that begins rondo-like, mounts in excitement through an expansive second section, revisits themes from the first movement, and peaks in a grand coda that ends with a series of chime-like chords—a wonderful, characteristically Russian touch.
© Barbara Leish
Barbara Leish is a retired creative director, a freelance writer and an avid amateur musician who has been studying and playing for many years and has a particular love of chamber music.