The Column and the Pedestal: Quartets by Brahms and Tchaikovsky, performed by the Borodin Quartet

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The Borodin Quartet.
The Borodin Quartet.

Program: Brahms Quartet no. 3 in B-flat; Tchaikovsky, Quartet no. 3 in E-flat minor; at Ozawa Hall, July 17, 2013.

The string quartet medium and the classical style are almost synonymous. They fit each other so perfectly that they appear to be two sides of the same coin, complementary aspects of the same musical impulse. At least that is the impression one gets from the core literature of works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, the composers discussed in Charles Rosen’s “The Classical Style” (one of the best books about music of any kind — a classic in itself). The two sides of the coin, however, started to pull apart in interesting ways after Schubert. By the later nineteenth century when Brahms and Tchaikovsky were writing their quartets, there were a number of ways that music could be matched to the quartet medium. The idea that a quartet is no longer simply a conversation among four players takes hold. Mahler thought that Beethoven’s late quartets are too large in their gestures for just four players; he transcribed several for string orchestra and programmed them on concerts which he conducted.1 Mahler’s view of the quartet as a miniature orchestral work may have been influenced by romantic quartets that appear to be bursting at the seams, straining against the limitations of a mere four instruments. For the romantics, emotional intensity could equate with thick, full textures and grandiose emotions. Chamber music for more than four instruments was popular throughout the century; both Brahms and Tchaikovsky made distinguished contributions to the literature of the string sextet.

The concert by the superb Borodin Quartet offered an opportunity to experience the tensions between medium and musical idea around the year 1875. The contrasts between the works, both technically and aesthetically, were made strikingly apparent. The Borodin plays with a highly refined sense of style. They maintain a purity of intonation one might almost associate with an early-instrument ensemble. Vibrato is subtle and does not mar the homogeneity of the harmonic tuning; balances always feel judicious and appropriate. One imagines they must work very hard on every detail to achieve such unanimity of approach, but the playing never feels constrained or pre-programmed. Solos are beautifully integrated; each player can be richly expressive but never forgets that he is part of the group. The playing does not strain to transcend the medium, to emulate a full orchestra or a concerto. It adhered faithfully to the classical pedigree of the medium.


The two works occupy different positions within their composers’ oeuvres. Tchaikovsky wrote all three of his quartets early on, before the operas, ballets, and later symphonies that define his musical signature and command audience attention. The Third Quartet foreshadows ideas, themes, moods, and forms that reappear in later works with sharper profile, more intense emotion, and more memorable thematic ideas. Significantly these later developments use the larger and more colorful resources of the orchestra. Skillful as he was with solo and chamber music, Tchaikovsky’s signature sound is that of the orchestra. (Compare that with Brahms. Of the Tchaikovsky recordings listed on, only about 25% do not involve orchestra. For Brahms, the figure is about 64%.) Tchaikovsky’s approach to time is analogous to his approach to color: he makes lavish use of both. His forms are expansive, and his ideas can sometimes appear inflated, a characteristic I recently noted in his compatriot Shostakovich.2 Tchaikovsky grabs hold of a favorite idea and will not let it go, often letting the directionality of the music wander (something that does not happen as much in his later symphonies).

This is not always a problem: the openness of the forms allows room for surprising innovations and ideas that seem to spring out of nowhere. The slow introduction to the first movement seems to be harmonically at sea, or possibly headed in the wrong direction. Even when the main idea sails into view, it is still not completely clear where home port is located; the music eventually backs into it, but there remains a shadow of doubt that lingers until the slow introduction reappears at the end of the movement, turning the ship right way around. This is of course a highly effective way of prolonging a mood of angst, restlessness, melancholy, and all the other Tchaikovskian affects that have become familiar. Significantly, the material involved is a passionate melody for first violin accompanied simply by the other three instruments, a solo-group configuration that could also occur in a concerto.

There is another strikingly original sound in the second movement: liturgical chanting is conjured up by responsorial choral textures and text intonation on a single note reiterated hauntingly by the viola. Tchaikovsky uses parallel octaves and fifths to produce an obscure, archaic atmosphere, one full of glowing colors and smoking candles. (Parallel fifths and octaves are academically forbidden; Brahms, who followed the rules, had a kind of horrified fascination with them and made a study of places in the repertory where they occur.3)

Johannes Brahms.
Johannes Brahms.

Brahms’ quartets were published in the center of his career, just before and after the completion of his First Symphony. He probably wrote the first two earlier, along with many others, and finally decided to save them from the fires with which he destroyed those deemed less worthy. The Third Quartet appeared after the symphony when the fearsome shadow of Beethoven seems to have momentarily departed, allowing for a period of cheerful lyricism to flourish. Before publishing symphony or quartet (the quintessential Beethoven genres), Brahms had produced a rich trove of chamber works for combinations that pointed toward symphonic fullness without actually attaining it. This includes two string sextets, three piano quartets,4 the great piano quintet in F minor, and even a trio for horn, violin, and piano. Prior to this he had produced two quasi-symphonic serenades. In all these works, Brahms seemed to walk a tight-rope between chamber and orchestral music, without being willing to choose sides. Having finally gotten a true symphony out of his system at the age of forty-one, he was ready to commit to a true chamber work very much in the spirit, not of Beethoven, but rather of Haydn. In this quartet there is an acceptance of reduced means, of self-imposed limits, with a purification of gesture and a new kind of intimacy. In his typically self-dismissive (or defensive) description, Brahms called this one of the “useless trifles” that he had produced that summer of 1875. Like the earlier Haydn Variations, it is in the cheerful key of B-flat major, and its themes have a bucolic, open-air feel, even conjuring up the sound of paired French horns whose color infuses the orchestral variations. The use of variation form also connects these works, with Brahms crafting such a set for the final movement of the quartet. Here formal resourcefulness shows itself most clearly; like Tchaikovsky Brahms seeks to round things out, but instead of doing so within one movement, he rounds out the entire four-movement work by morphing his last-movement theme into the opening horn-call of the first movement, providing a moment of discovery and revelation.

While Tchaikovsky’s quartet treats the ensemble like a mini-orchestra from which solos arise and melt away, Brahms does not let us lose track of the individual instrumental voices. Even when the lead player solos, as at the start of the second movement, the others make audible contributions, tugging and pulling the harmony in expressive and unexpected directions.5 Brahms demonstrates the art of the quartet in which richness comes from impassioned conversational participation rather than the strength of numbers. Moments that linger in the mind are the duets answered by duets or trios or the whole quartet (as at the very beginning).

The critic Eduard Hanslick worshipping Brahms.
The critic Eduard Hanslick worshipping Brahms.

Although he liked him personally, Tchaikovsky felt no affinity for Brahms’ music. He called it “a pedestal without a column on it” and despite years of studying his works, always came away dissatisfied. Brahms also gave Tchaikovsky’s music a try; he attended rehearsals of the Fifth Symphony at Meiningen and allowed as the last movement had some good things in it. He might have felt it was like a column unsupported by a pedestal: nice ideas floating in the air rather than solidly growing in structural soil. Tchaikovsky’s music turns on the big tune. What happens before or after can seem like filler, something that makes us wait in suspense for the next moment of gratification. Brahms could pull the same trick, as in the finale of his First Symphony (a much-criticized but much-loved moment). But for him, the tune is not the climax, but rather a starting point, setting things in motion, as in the opening of the Third Quartet. His other trick, of bringing this theme back as a variation three movements later, fills us with the delight of recognition — the tune is an old friend who has just sneaked in through the back door.

The distinction between these two approaches to quartet composition were minutely observed by the Borodin players. The quartet has been in existence for sixty-two years, but its personnel has continued to evolve. Some of its original members, like Rostislav Dubinsky, were old-school Russian string players whose take-no-prisoners romanticism would have been fine for Tchaikovsky but potentially over-bearing in Brahms. With the current membership, first violin Ruben Aharonian and violist Igor Naiden are the senior members, joining in 1996. Their colleagues were added within the past six years. They have cultivated a restrained, elegant, almost rarified sense of ensemble, but have retained a round, beautifully satisfying sonority. They play with precision but also relaxation; grace is achieved without audible strain or tension. The sound was never pushed (as it is with some well-known American quartets), and in the slightly cavernous environment of Ozawa Hall, the audience was drawn quietly into an intimate conversation. I hope they return soon; I would be happy to hear them in any repertory, pedestals, columns, and all.

1 Leonard Bernstein was fond of these arrangements. Another quartet often done by orchestras is that of Verdi, and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” started life as a string quartet movement.

2 Review of TMC concert including Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 11.

3 Brahms’s, “Octaven u. Quinten u. A”

4 The first of which, in G minor op. 25, is so suggestive of larger forces that Schoenberg produced a version for full orchestra which appears occasionally on concert programs.

5 As in the second phrase, where a single flat third in the first violin signals the other voices to pull the harmony all the way from F major to D-flat major for 4 bars before the home key is restored by an equal and opposite tug.

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