Piano Quartet, op.25 in G minor, was dubbed “Brahms’ Fifth
Symphony” by the orchestrator — Arnold Schoenberg — himself.
By other accounts, it was the conductor of the premiere,
Bruno Walter, who coined the term. That’s not boasting, it’s
quite accurate. For one, the symphonic writing of Brahms
in that marvellous, blustery quartet lends itself to the
orchestral arrangement. Also Schoenberg did a bang-up job
in the orchestration which isn’t so much Brahms but Brahms
catapulted into the 20th
century of Mahler and
is an anecdote of Bruno Walter, who had suggested to Schoenberg
to arrange and orchestrate that quartet. He had premiered
the Schoenberg orchestration of the Brahms Quartet in L.A.
and one of the ‘Dragon-Ladies’ of the Board came up to him
afterwards and proclaimed: “I don’t know what everyone’s
problem is with that Schoenberg. I think that was quite beautiful.”*
is safe to say that she did not gain much insight into Schoenberg’s
(actual) work, but at least she enjoyed his orchestration,
which indeed – insight or not – any Brahms-lover will.
result, despite Schoenberg’s insistence that he only ‘opened
up the inherent possibilities’ of works of past masters,
is a musical work of its own. Just listen to the last movement’s
instrumentation which revels in surges of Hungarian color
that Brahms would never have come up with. The quartet is
no longer rarely heard, as it was in Schoenberg’s time, nor
often played badly when it is
- another of Schoenberg’s
complaints and reasons for orchestrating it. But that does
not negate the additional pleasure that can be gained from
Indeed, this monumental and stunningly beautiful work is good
to have in any performance. A fine account has recently been offered
by Robert Craft on Naxos — coupled with the re-working of the
Monn cello concerto, which is more based on
, rather than
“transcribed from”, Georg Matthias Monn’s (1717 - 1750) work.
The latest addition comes from CPO, Daniel Raiskin, and the State Orchestra Rhenish Philharmonic
(Koblenz). Its a lighter,
not to say lyrical, performance, but neither as secure nor unashamedly
bombastic as Christoph Eschenbachs recording with the Houston
Symphony (coupled with Schoenbergs excellent Bach transcriptions
of BWV 552, BWV 654, and BWV 631) on RCA (sadly oop).
The finest sounding version currently available is probably Neeme Järvi’s on Chandos
, because the London
Symphony Orchestra delivers more of a punch and more vibrant colors
than the Rhenish Philharmonic.
said, the main attraction on this disc is not the Brahms/Schoenberg
arrangement, but the Berio orchestral arrangement of the
Clarinet Sonata op.120/1. Like Schoenberg, it’s a harmonically
and melodically “straight” transcription, not a modern re-imagining
of the work. Berio, no stranger to orchestrations and adaptations
- Puccini’s Turandot
, works by Schubert, Mahler, and
Verdi - tackled this last major work of Brahms’ for reasons
we don’t know. Iosif Raiskin speculates that the tinges of
Mahler in late Brahms may have been a reason for the Mahler-loving
Berio. Be that as it may, the result is a wonderfully graceful
Brahms Clarinet Concerto. Quite different than the grandiloquent
Schoenberg transcriptions — partly due to the very different
source material, partly due to the airier orchestration.
Heinz Steffens’ performance is, if anything, even better
than the already admirable orchestral contribution in the
Berio-Brahms. If you like the idea of transcriptions, if
you like Brahms, if you don’t already have a recording of
the “Fifth Symphony”, and if you like the clarinet (or if
any two of these four points are true), this is probably
worth seeking out.
Jens F. Laurson
The same story also exists in a version
where it was the manager of the L.A. Symphony who said the
same thing, except substituting “melody” for “beauty”. I
haven’t yet found out which one is more credible; for now
I prefer the former.