If I were to make a list of classical music to help convert non-fans to the literature, Johannes Brahms’s G-minor piano quartet, opus 25, would certainly rank high. But while many “music appreciation” class staples often get tired after repeated listening (this is a positive music blog, so I’ll refrain from mentioning Pachelbel’s canon or Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”), Brahms’s quartet sounds as good to me watching a performance on Youtube now as it did listening to it on vinyl twenty years ago.
The whole work is great, but the last movement, the “Rondo a la Zingarese”, is the high point. Whenever possible, I always like to listen to classical music in its entirety (the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth are great, but there’s another half hour, too.) However, when time is short and I don’t have 94 minutes for Mahler’s third symphony but still want to get my classical music fix, the greatest former whore-house pianist in musical history does the trick.
Brahms originally planned to write the piece as a string quintet, and reworked into the piano quartet format, with piano, cello, viola and violin. He later arranged it for four-hand piano. Arnold Schoenberg made a famous transcription for full orchestra, particularly effective in the final movement, where the percussion instruments bring out the music’s ethnic flavor.
The term “rondo” refers to a musical form in which a main musical theme alternates with other melodies. Here, the main theme is a forceful one (especially in the orchestral version), broken up by contrasting sections. A stately melody provides nice balance. A mournful viola and cello theme seems to recall the image of a strolling minstrel, or perhaps a musician at an upscale French restaurant. The recurrence of the main motif ties things together, building to a climatic moment when the piano executes a cascade of descending arpeggios.
Following this, the instruments regroup, quietly, but quickly building to a decisive final statement of the main theme. The last fifteen seconds are as furious and energetic as anything in classical music – or perhaps almost any genre. Whether you’re a veteran of symphonic halls or a complete rookie, the ending of this work is jaw-dropping.
I’ve always had the belief that while certain trends and styles may come and go, great music always does stand the test of time. Long after most of the people responsible the songs dominating today’s charts, the masterpieces of classical music–just like their counterparts in jazz, rock, blues and other genres–will endure. For me–and many others–the G minor piano quartet of Brahms will always be there.