Brahms Works for Chamber Ensemble

Brahms wrote 24 chamber ensemble pieces spanning the 40 years of his mature career, ranging from sextets to duo sonatas (solo instrument with piano accompaniment). These are, without exception, some of the loveliest expressions of the musical art.

I find this music, together with the solo piano music (subject of another post), to be the most timeless of Brahms’ genres, as relevant today as when written. I think this is because these works were so intensely personal in character that anyone with a sympathetic ear must surely become caught up in them.

Below are my recommended go-to recordings for these works, in order of composition. Words can not well convey my instincts regarding how Brahms’ music should sound. These performers convey all, with surpassing eloquence.

These have not always been my favorite versions. My listening experience and taste gradually becomes more informed and discerning. I find myself initially attracted to performances that are pretty; they help me enter unfamiliar music and to find enough appeal to help me keep a performance in my playlist. But eventually, I gravitate to performances that reveal more emotion and character, performances that engage the music in a ‘no holds barred’ experience.

Following this list is my ‘music appreciation 101’ section,  the usual, extra-musical verbosity, of no musicological value, revealing why I think each particular performance captures my imagination to the fullest.

This is an ongoing project. I welcome alternative recommendations, particularly from others whose listening tastes match my own.

Recommended Recordings of Brahms’ Works for Chamber Ensemble

(year published, year begun, “subtitle”) [year recorded]

8-original: Piano Trio, B/b (1854) Altenberg Trio Wien [2007]
18: String Sextet, B♭ (1860) Laredo, Lin, Ma, Robinson, Stern, Tree [1989]
25: Piano Quartet, g (1861) Domus [1988]
26: Piano Quartet, A (1861) Domus [1988]
34: Piano Quintet, f (1864) Juilliard Quartet, Fleisher [1963]
36: String Sextet, G (1865) Laredo, Lin, Ma, Robinson, Stern, Tree [1992]
38: Cello Sonata, e (1865, 1862) Saulnier, Dyachkov [2003]
40: Horn (Cello) Trio, E♭ (1865) Greer, Lubin, Chase [1990]
51/1: String Quartet, c (1873) Juilliard Quartet [1995]
51/2: String Quartet, a (1873) Juilliard Quartet [1991]
60: Piano Quartet, c (1874, 1853 “Werther”) Domus [1988]
67: String Quartet, B (1876) Juilliard Quartet [1995]
78: Violin Sonata, G (1878) Suk, Katchen [1967]
87: Piano Trio, C (1882) Suk, Starker, Katchen [1968]
88: String Quintet, F (1882) Juilliard Quartet, Trampler [1995]
99: Cello Sonata, F (1886) Starker, Katchen [1968]
100: Violin Sonata, A (1886) Suk, Katchen [1967]
101: Piano Trio, c (1886) Suk, Starker, Katchen [1968]
108: Violin Sonata, d (1888) Suk, Katchen [1967]
8-neue ausgabe: Piano Trio, B/b (1889) Suk, Starker, Katchen [1968]
111: String Quintet, G (1890 “Prater”) Juilliard Quartet, Trampler [1995]
114: Clarinet Trio, a (1891) Schmidl, Inui, Miteva [2003]
115: Clarinet Quintet, b (1891) Juilliard Quartet, Neidich [1991]
120/1: Clarinet Sonata, f (1894) Shifrin, Rosenberger [1992]
120/1: Viola Sonata, f (1894) Kashkashian, Levin [1996]
120/2: Clarinet Sonata, E♭ (1894) Shifrin, Rosenberger [1992]
120/2: Viola Sonata, E♭ (1894) Kashkashian, Levin [1996]

Performers Who Have Won Me Over

I think I know what I like, but I find my taste varying over time. I don’t yet trust my ear enough to know if these choices below represent a cohesive selection with a specific musical POV, or merely an off-the-wall selection of interpretations, of no redeeming musicological value.

I evaluate various groups or performers for each piece; a minimum of three is my goal, sometimes many more to find one that pleases. It shouldn’t amaze that when a group does one piece well, they will excel in most they attempt. Thus, only a few groups appear in the list above, most appearing multiple times. Once a fan, always a fan. Of course, there will likely be other, even more pleasing versions out there somewhere. Please recommend them to my attention, even though I require none better than those above.

I triage various interpretations via my prioritized preferences: tempi, sound, expression. My sensitivity to tempo for a piece is undoubtedly influenced by my first experience of a performance. But I also seem to have an innate sense of sweet spot for tempo that eschews extremes. The sweet spot is almost always what the composer himself recommends. If any part of a performance does not correspond to its tempo sweet spot, I am unlikely to devote any further listening time.

I prefer up-close sound, from a performer perspective. Seeming to be immersed in the music makes it easier for me to hear and track individual voices, to hear all that is going on. I also require a modern recording offering high fidelity sound, ruling out most performances recorded before the late 1950s. If a recording places the performers too distant from my ear, or provides sub-standard audio quality, I will likely not revisit it.’

Expression is a newer priority for me that increases as my ear and taste develops. I am initially attracted to homogeneous, pretty sound, but such performances eventually grow stale. Performers that extract and convey the most meaning and feeling from a piece are the ones I will spend most time with. Yet excesses of expression, melodramatic indulgences and sentiment, are an immediate disqalifier.

Once a performances passes my triage qualifiers, I am free to spend some quality time  assessing how the performance demonstrates understanding of the composer’s intent, consistent with my own vision, and then expresses to me the performers’ love of the music. No performance can be authentic if the love isn’t present, an outward-directed, generous, and mature love that gives all to the other and reserves none for self. (Performers with large egos usually need not apply.)

Brahms’ instrument was the piano, and it appears in much of his chamber music. Julius Katchen’s vision, in interpreting the Brahms piano repertoire, informs my vision compatibly. Although primarily a soloist, Katchen was a skillful accompanist, aided by his uniquely shaded touch, by the variety of expressiveness he could invoke at pianissimo. His magical touch, combined with his personal choice of piano, produces a delicate tone quality that belies the percussive and string nature of the instrument. Above all, I appreciate Katchen because he ‘gets’ Brahms and plays his compositions lovingly.

In the chamber ensemble music, Brahms explores the detailed expressive power of stringed instruments. He began playing cello at age four, three years before taking up keyboard performance. It seems that as with wines, the tones of stringed instruments can be varied, from ‘sweet’ to ‘dry’, from ‘throaty’ to ‘pure’ in tone. It is the performer’s instrument choice and preparation, combined with command of expressive elements of the instrument, that makes it sound more or less thus or so. Not being a stringed instrument player, I do not understand the techniques involved, but my ear notes several degrees of tone quality. I prefer a more organic sound, with less polish and sweetness, which I presume comes from choice of strings and rosin, combined with compatible bowing technique. I hope someday to encounter a technical description of how such sound is produced.

It is our very good fortune that before Katchen’s early death robbed us of his talent, Decca teamed him up with violinist Josef Suk (great-grandson of Antonin Dvořák) and cellist János Starker. This trio gives us nearly complete coverage of the respective sonatas and trios.

Suk’s tone possesses that throaty quality that is a joy to my ear. His playing exudes precision and control, able to intensify tone for more passionate passages. As a masterful Brahms interpreter, he finds his ideal pairing on the violin sonatas with Katchen and his mercurial piano. The exactitude of their phrasing, whether easy-going and conversational or lyrically flowing, always seems nuanced to the finest shadings of Brahms’ idiom and intricate craft.

The hushed mysterious moods that flit in and out of Brahms’ more intimate themes are captured eerily well. The performances are given a cultured, aristocratic patina, with no hint of excess. The sonatas were recorded in 1967 by Decca in London’s Kingsway Hall, noted for its fortuitous acoustics. The current 24-bit digital remastering preserves these treasured performances. These are unsurpassed Brahms interpretations.

The duo blends well with Starker’s focused cello in the trios, also recorded by Decca at Snape Maltings in 1968. All three are prodigies known for the power and precision of their solo playing, and they reveal here an additional dimension of sensitivity required to capture Brahms’ meanings. All three eschew pyrotechnics for fidelity in the service of expressiveness. The string players both achieve a focused tone accompanied by a restrained vibrato that permits us to fully appreciate their intonation. And foremost for this musical genre, they complement and play off each other as is required for balanced and fluid expression. Brahms can be in no more sympathetic and loving hands than these.

Unfortunately, Katchen did not leave a recording of E-min cello sonata, and it took a while to find something I liked. My current winner is the 2003 Canadian duo, Jean Saulnier and cellist Yegor Dyachkov (also includes the F-maj sonata). They approach Brahms with a light touch and a respect for Brahms’ indicated tempi, providing a brisk reading that helps keep the flowing, lyrical lines in focus. Dyachkov prefers a well-enunciated, conversational approach in some phrasing that is effective for me.

This was Brahms first duo sonata composition, and the densely polyphonic piano part is often dominant. Dyachkov transitions from foreground to background according to the demands of the music; there is teamwork evident. Dyachkov’s unique sound is sweet/dry, sometimes with a slightly reedy texture. Saulnier, a former student of Leon Fleisher, is an effective Katchen stand-in, although exhibiting a less-shaded touch to my ear.

Katchen accompanied Starker on the F-maj cello sonata during the Decca recordings. I prefer it to the Saulnier/Dyachkov version, because of  Starker’s focused tone and Katchen’s sympathetic interpretation and nuanced touch.

The horn trio is a unique format in the Brahms catalog. A waldhorn is a must. I eventually settled on two similar performances, one by the noted ensemble of Tuckwell, Perlman, Ashkenazy, the other by the trio Greer, Chase, Lubin. I finally gave the nod to the latter group, based only on tempo. The Allegro con brio felt a little too brio in the former, ~10% faster.

For the string quartets, and the quintets derived from an augmented quartet, the Juilliard Quartet has become my go-to group. They have a unique, conversational style that captures the intimacy of these special pieces. The risk of such an approach is failure to fully capture moments of lyricism, but these players succeed in sweeping us along when the music turns to song.

Their playing is relaxed, never pushing tempi. Their tone is full-bodied and expressively nuanced, with judicious use of well-blended vibrato. My overall impression regarding their art is, in a word, organic. Surprisingly, although their personnel have changed over the decades, their sound is always similarly unique, as if the group has a musical mantra that inspires all group editions.

For comparison, the Emerson Quartet plays Brahms more sweetly, with more uniform tempi, and they blend their individual sounds more cohesively. What’s not to like? It is very enjoyable to hear them once in a while, but then Brahms starts to sound overly classical in inspiration. The music becomes less fresh, more mechanical, less organic.

Perhaps the difference results from the Emerson’s artistic conception, their uniquely chosen style. Or perhaps, their great facility with these pieces lulls them into less engagement with the music as time goes by. I sense this is where the Juilliard Quartet shines, concentrating on hearing each other and the composer, faithfully capturing expressive nuances. Also, they commit to playing old masterpieces as if they were new, an attitude that fosters revelation.

For the string quintets, I have come to appreciate the Juilliard Quartet with Walter Trampler, for the same reasons outlined above. A close second is my former favorite, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. The BCP’s ensemble playing is so connected that they fully achieve the effect of a single polyphonic instrument, even though the stereo image is spread across a wide stage. Their tempi are right on. A quibble, the cello is often a little too intrusive to my ear, somewhat tamed by added iTunes EQ. Their lush soundscape finds the sunny Brahms that all can appreciate.

For the Piano Quintet, I prefer the 1963 Juilliard Quartet (with Leon Fleisher as their Katchen stand-in). Fleischer, after recovery from his long affliction, made a much later recording of the Quintet with the Emerson Quartet, but again, I find it does not capture the Brahmsian idiom as well. Also, its tempi lag in each movement versus what my ear is used to; their dramatic (un-Emerson-like) rubato pauses are disruptive of flow; and they take the Allegro repeat, which really slows down the proceedings.

For the clarinet quintet, I also prefer the Juilliard Quartet (this time the 1994 edition) with Charles Neidich. This was a tough call vs. the highly polished Emerson performance with Schiffrin. But here I preferred a more relaxed account and liked the emotion evident in each instrumental part, the tentativeness of the expression that gave some themes an air of nocturnal reminiscence.

The clarinet trio presented some difficulty in selecting a favorite. Leister, Bognar, Böttcher is a pleasing performance, but the tempi are on the slow side, and there was little urgency in the playing. Leister’s tone is beautiful, but his playing strikes me as largely expressionless. The lack of evident heart and the slowness caused me to interview other recordings. I then found a new favorite in the Schmidl performance. Here they play adagio as requested, not larghetto. And the final allegro, while played allegretto, at least proceeds at a faster pace then the prior andante. Balance is difficult for this trio of instruments, and both recordings eclipse the clarinet briefly from time to time. Miteva has difficulty in a couple of places restraining her enthusiasm, and the softly-played clarinet is no match.

Katchen did not record the piano quartets. Wonderfully, the Domus piano quartet brings them to life as well as anyone I have found. They do not milk the phrases in the manner of some big name ensemble casts. They play with restraint, so cohesively, evenly, and transparently that we hear Brahms undistorted, prompting one to ask: Who are these guys? After more engaged listening, the question demands an answer. The two founding members present for the Brahms recordings are Susan Tomes (the Katchen stand-in), with Krysia Osostowiz on violin. (These two also have recorded the three violin sonatas and I hope to hear this recording some day.) The name Domus was inspired by a portable dome they traveled with early in their careers, enabling them to take the music to unusual venues (like the middle of a field). The recorded sound on the Brahms is digitally pristine, providing audience perspective.

The String Sextets are among my favorite pieces. I originally heard the Raphael Sextet’s version, and it was my favorite for years: warm, sunny, homogeneous, with a rich patina. But I began to realize the music offered more than this group was conveying. I have since found the missing insight and engagement in the music of the sextet of Laredo, Lin, Ma, Robinson, Stern, Tree, although the prior faves get a listen now and then still.

The Juilliard Quartet + 2 has made a live recording of the sextets, and based on my listening experience with the group, it may also find a place in my library if the recording quality is sufficiently good.

One oddity in Brahms’ chamber music is the first piano trio. It is the only work Brahms ever revised in his catalog. It was his first ensemble piece from 1854. He shortened and simplified it during 1889, which is the version mostly played today. Vienna’s Altenberg Trio provides an enthusiastic rendition of the original version in a manner suitable for such a youthful work.

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