John Thwaites, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Johannes Brahms: Historically-Informed Recording of the Piano Quartets

This Exposition presents a Double CD of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartets, recorded on period instruments in Vienna by The Primrose Piano Quartet for the Meridian label (CDE84650/1-2, 2019). The recording is presented in fully streamable MP3 format alongside a PDF of the CD booklet proof. Accompanying the recording is an essay which documents the research questions, methodology and processes underpinning the work. Preparation, rehearsal, recording and editing are discussed as a process of interpretative investigation. Historically-Informed Performance Practice with respect to Brahms is a thriving academic discipline within which we have endeavoured to offer the most radically innovative post-war commercial recording.


CD recording

CD booklet

Essay: Rehearsal and Recording as Investigative-Interpretative Process


Appendix: Critical Reception

CD Audio. Meridian CDE84650/1-2 (MP3s)

JOHANNES BRAHMS: The Piano Quartets

CD 1

Piano Quartet No.3 in C minor Op.60

1 Allegro non troppo

2 Scherzo: Allegro

3 Andante

4 Finale

Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor Op.25

5 Allegro

6 Intermezzo: Allegro ma non troppo

7 Andante con moto

8 Rondo alla Zinglarese: Presto

CD 2
Piano Quartet No.2 in A major Op.26

9 Allegro non troppo

10 Poco adagio

11 Scherzo: Poco allegro

12 Finale: Allegro

Recorded by Richard Hughes, Director and Chief Sound Engineer of Meridian Records, the UK’s original natural sound independent label. The recording is available as MP3, FLAC (CD quality, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit), Hi-Res FLAC (96 kHz, 24 bit) and Hi-Res+ FLAC (192 kHz, 24 bit). More information on the recording method, using a pair of stereo microphones can be found here:


CD Booklet (proof), Brahms The Piano Quartets, Meridian CDE84650/1-2


Rehearsal and Recording as Investigative-Interpretative Process

On 28th-30th March 2018 the Primrose Piano Quartet (Susanne Stanzeleit, Dorothea Vogel, Andrew Fuller and John Thwaites) were in Vienna to record a Double CD of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartets for the Meridian label supported by research funding from Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham City University. We were in the Ehrbar Hall, much frequented by Brahms, and using three period pianos by his favourite makers (Streicher, Blüthner, Ehrbar). Old string instruments were strung with gut. We had recreated the physical surroundings that Brahms would have recognised, but how did we decide upon the stylistic parameters within which to perform?

Historically-Informed Performance (HIP) is now all-pervasive, pertains to all periods of music, and co-exists with a mainstream orthodoxy with which it is in constant dialogue. Even where performers occupy extreme ends of the spectrum, the existence of that spectrum is clearly apparent. Academics who make recordings are self-aware with respect to this positioning as just one necessary precondition to making original and significant contributions to the audio archive.

In his Keynote Speech of May 2016 for the Indiana Jacobs School of Music entitled Playing with History Again Professor John Butt explored some of the reasons for HIP’s growing influence over the last 60 years: the growing band of poly-skilled freelancers who move between different groups; diversity of performers, venues, and recording platforms; the admission of historical performance studies as a discipline within Universities and Conservatoires; EU membership; expansion of HIP to Japan and the Far East; broadening of focus from Baroque/Classical through to the twentieth century; and the democratising power of the Internet (including Youtube recordings and IMSLP editions in addition to formal academic sites). The corollary dangers are also dissected: Dilution; Amateurism; Tokenism, but with a recognition that “pick and mix” can be part of the positive process of wider assimilation.

HIP insights have been most warmly embraced where there has been pre-existing dissatisfaction with contemporary practice. Within the Primrose Piano Quartet, we were clear that modern rigidity of pulse is deeply limiting, and that period instruments offer a plurality of piano sound in addition to an opportunity to rethink balance and allow for the use of gut and hybrid gut strings.

HIP Brahms is coming of age. Groups working forwards from the Baroque and Classical, including L’Archibudelli (Anner Bylsma), Hausmusik (Monica Huggett), and Quatuor Mosaïques, have made Brahms recordings in the last twenty years. Modern players are working backwards, inspired by early recordings made within a few years of Brahms’s death. In June/July 2015, Professor Clive Brown hosted an important symposium on performing practice in Leeds, Performing Brahms in the Twenty-first Century, timed to coincide with the publication by Bärenreiter of the Booklet Performance Practices in Johannes Brahms’ Chamber Music.

On 19th-22nd February 2018, the Primrose invited leading figures from the Leeds conference (Dr. Anna Scott, Claire Holden, Dr. Kate Bennett Wadsworth and Professor Ronald Woodley) to Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, where we brainstormed the Brahms Piano Quartets, and gave an intentionally boundary-pushing performance of the A major Op. 26 with an 1850’s piano by Clara Schumann’s cousin Wilhelm Wieck, an instrument of obvious historic importance, although not properly maintained. This constitutes the Video in links below. Audio clips are outtakes from the Vienna sessions, none of which were used in the final edit.

Brahms lived and breathed within an “elastic tempo”. But comparing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas editions made by Brahms himself with those of his contemporary Hans von Bülow confirms that Brahms was happy to have many of the performing traditions of his day left unreflected in the text and not to fuss with variable metronome marks (unlike Artur Schnabel, who later made heavily edited players’ editions of both Beethoven and Brahms). So we are left with the question, how much tempo elasticity?

Here, in bars 246-283 of Op. 26’s Scherzo, the lower strings initially slow the tempo to give space to a darker tonality. As the texture and tonality lighten, we move the tempo forward, and also swing the tempo, sometimes after an initial bar-line placing (e.g. for the ‘cello pizzicato beginning bar 266), to create a little grazioso. Brahms only notates dynamics. Academics understand the limitations and complications around issues of notation, but, as Daniel Leech-Wilkinson points out in his work on Challenging Performance, “too many performers have an unmediated response to what they see, an “urtext mentality” that has killed an important part of music-making.”

An outtake from Vienna reinforces the point. In bars 343-362, Coda, Op. 25 first movement, there is a progressive dynamic marking (poco a poco cresc.) which can, for those who need it, offer some justification for either an accelerando or a broadening of tempo, just as the dynamic hairpins ought probably to be agogically inflected. But there are no tempo markings. On this occasion we make a very pushy accelerando, but are also moving the tempo around, for example steadying a little to emphasise the arrival at fortissimo. The result sounds spontaneous, creative and free, but arguably exhibits a degree of ensemble asynchronicity that a Producer might feel uncomfortable with, as indeed did ours (Rachel Smith).

Almost all sources agree that slow movements should not be too slow, Fanny Davies writing “The tendency is usually to play the andantes too slowly” (Cobbett,1926, Vol. 1 p. 184). Sometimes probelms arise if performers believe that a movement heading is a performance instruction when it is just as likely to be a descriptor (of the subdivision of the beat, or type of pulse. So one has no need to play “moderately” or more “slowly” (more “relaxed” than a natural reading of the music would suggest). In addition to the natural relationship between density of sound and tempo (lighter period instruments predispose quicker tempi) performers understand that they can make their slow musical gestures more apparent in a quicker tempo. Perhaps, when Brahms “would linger not on one note alone, but on a whole idea, as if unable to tear himself away from its beauty” (Cobbett,1926, Vol. 1 p.182), he was doing so within a tempo that highlighted this romantic lingering (as one can hear so clearly in early recordings made by members of the Brahms/Schumann circle, for example Adelina da Lara’s Op. 117 No. 1 or Ilona Eibenschütz’s Op. 119 No. 2). In the case of the slow movement from Op. 26 a faster initial tempo also means that the B minor outburst at bar 42 can be in the same tempo, when so often it is much quicker. Failing to reconcile problems of tempo within a movement if such a reconciliation is possible is generally a mistake. Here the material is undoubtedly too didactically and unremittingly driven, but we do have a consistent basic tempo. Within the opening melody there is romantic lingering (longing) on notes at, or just after (especially where slurred duples are then marked portato) the top of the phrase, and in the B minor episode we continue to play notes inégales, along with some rhythmic foreshortening, and an emphatic sostenuto at the climax, just towards the end of the extract.

Kenneth Hamilton begins the Preface to After the Golden Age with an anecdote: “ I recently, regrettably, attended a recital of four Beethoven sonatas given by an internationally lauded player in a large hall…He …proceeded to perform with all the spontaneity of a tenth take in a recording studio…It was a miserable experinece” (Hamilton, 2008, vii). This reminds us both of the need for recreative artists to at least appear to be genuinely recreating in real time, and of the challenges of the recording process.

Above, now just the beginning of the Op. 26 slow movement, this first take has the flowing tempo we were so clear about in our experimental concert, with fresh narrative qualities of light and shade in the piano melody, subtle asynchronicity between hands, lingering moments, and considerable variety of expression. But the string sound is unfocused.

Here we are en route to the final edit, which was a little steadier in tempo, gave due significance to gorgeous string links with expressive portamenti, but lost something of the inspired story-telling of the earlier piano playing.

There is no doubting the beautifully polished sound of the final, edited, opening to Op. 26’s slow movement. For the beginning of Op. 25’s Andante con moto we chose a balance that kept the piano quaver line intentionally accompanimental, whereas this more equal approach, including in temporal sculpting, also has merit (note the unabashed opening upbeat portamento):

If the recording process has challenges, so too does using three different period pianos. At the opening of the first movement of Op. 26 the piano and then strings state the opening motif with different articulation, which leaves scope for manoeuvre in how to make sense of the passage. Here the piano follows the articulation of the violin’s subsequent double stops:

In the next two takes, I experiment with more light and shade, moving towards something freer and more legato, but half lose some repeated notes as I adjust to the Blüthner’s English Double Action:

For a final example of some more extreme inégale quavers, pushing and then lingering, this from bar 217 of Op. 26’s first movement:

If the Primrose were ever to publish a players’ edition of these works, we might head up the finale of Op 26 à la hongroise, proposing (albeit in a Schubertian sense of within sonata form) that this may be closer in spirit to the Op. 25 finale than is generally supposed. The lower strings hairpin in bar 304 might be marked poco sostenuto, and the first piano scale in bar 305 would be ritenuto, poco esitando, followed by general accelerando (probably just to, not beyond, Tempo 1).The extract (from bar 175) begins with overly ostentatious asynchronicity, but the energy and gypsy inflections to this Alla Breve Allegro were qualities that we took to Vienna:

Turning to the real Gypsy Finale of Op. 25, in concerts we usually play not much faster than crotchet 160. In the next two takes, you can hear us first setting out at our normal tempo, and then deciding that the ambition of the sessions (and the services of a dedicated editor) mean that we could afford to throw caution entirely to the wind, as befits “alla Zingarese”:

We trusted ourselves to explore freely during sessions (leaving it to our Producer to ensure that we were “covered”). An example is in the opening to the Finale of Op. 60, where a base-line take sounded like this:

Using every possible technical and musical device to lovingly and lavishly garnish the violin line produced this:

But we also explored a sound with much less vibrato, modelled on Joachim’s sound:

As we resolved this during editing, we had to decide which tempo we believed in (the extract above is a little slow), and be mindful of the HIP consensus that an exposition repeat is normally more flowing than the original (because the material has already been stated once, and players are naturally more fluent).

Analogous to string experiments with vibrato and portamenti are pianistic decisions around arpeggiation, with unwritten arpeggiation one of the more controversial aspects of Brahms HIP.

“Some modern players of nineteenth-century pianos seem to feel uncomfortable with certain performance practices associated with the era. It is surprising how many of them award themselves a gold star for using historical instruments on recordings but steadfastly ignore the improvisation, unmarked arpeggiation of chords, and tempo flexibility that was such an important feature of much romantic performance practice” (Hamilton, 2008, p. 31).

At one end of the spectrum was a recent conversation with Lucy Gould, with whom I was playing Op. 26. She asked why I was arpeggiating the chords in bars 213-216 that accompany the ‘cello at the start of the recapitulation in the first movement, since she had never heard anyone do it, and it’s not written. She instantly accepted my explanation that I acted by direct analogy to the exposition, where the arpeggiation is marked. And surely arpeggiation has less power to shock than, for example, playing, or adding, tied notes (I’m surprised than von Bülow ties the left hand across the barline into bar 113 at the end of the first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 110, although I find it not unattractive to play the passage in that way. Perhaps it is the removal of a “hammer event” that marks the most redical intervention. After all, one would never want to lose Finger Pedalling from pianism (there are delicious examples in von Bülow’s edition of the "Moonlight"s first movement, in bars 4 and 57), our legatissimo equates to an unwritten tied note crossing over to a quarter of the note value of the succeeding note, and our pedalling makes even more radical alterations to the ends of notes). Pianists with small hands are not infrequently obliged to arpeggiate (that may be one aspect of de Lara’s playing). Brent Yorgason has written a PhD on the matter, and presented a paper specifically about Brahms to the Leeds conference. One can use varied arpeggiation to shape a series of long notes and soften vertical events, and the final forte statement of the Chorale (from bar 311, Finale) of Op. 60 seems an obvious place to start:

Here somewhat more boldly:

And here accompanied by a somewhat too mannered dynamic shaping:

We did made a take of the Chorale unarpeggiated as written, but it lacked musical conviction.

When we made an earlier recording of Op. 25 with a Blüthner handpicked by Brahms himself for the Clive family of Lower Swanmore, Hampshire, in 2010 (Meridian CDE 84599), the use of period pianos was less common than it is now, and as the only example on the market we were reviewed as one of eight recordings shortlisted by Ivan Hewett for Building a Library, BBC Radio 3, 4th October 2014:

“One recording which has exemplary clarity comes from the Primrose Piano Quartet…they play with great stylistic awareness…proving that a light touch is probably the best sort”.

With respect to clarity of contrapuntal line and lack of heaviness the centre ground of Brahms playing has moved significantly since 1960-2000 when conservatoire students were routinely taught to play Brahms in time, seriously, with a thick, generous sound, and spacious weighty breadth. I doubt the opening movement of Op. 38 will ever again be played at the du Pré/Barenboim tempo (lovely though the playing is), nor will we have to suffer hearing the slow movement of Op. 99 in eight (although not every performance will be in two). We can hope that mainstream Brahms players (and students) begin to welcome the liberation of allowing themselves still further use of expressive and vocal portamenti, varied speeds of vibrato, varied bow speed, gut and hybrid gut, subtle asynchronicity, rubato, agogic inflection (perhaps of every hairpin, although in a multiplicity of ways), notes inégales, and elastic tempi. Since the closing decades of the twentieth century marked such a strict approach to metronomic tempo, it’s clear that there is now only the opposite direction in which to travel. If we then consider a style still more distant, undoubtedly recorded examples of such playing from the earliest years of the twentieth century are glorious in their own terms and more radical stylistic practice (for example, the continuous free arpeggiation employed by great contemporary Brahmsians Neal Peres Da Costa and Dr. Anna Scott) is revelatory in ways entirely consistent with nineteenth century traditions and indeed with performers that Brahms admired, yet it is possible that Brahms himself had moved away from the origins of such practices in harpsichord playing. He taught Florence May in the 1870’s and she noted: “Varying and sensitive expression was to him as the breath of life, necessary to the true interpretation of any work of genius, and he did not hesitate to avail himself of such resources of the modern pianoforte as he felt helped to impart it; no matter in what particular century his composer may have lived, or what may have been the peculiar excellencies and limitations of the instruments of his day. Whatever the music I might be studying, however, he would never allow any kind of “expression made easy”. He particularly disliked chords to be spread unless marked so by the composer for the sake of a special effect. “No apége”, he used invariably to say if I unconsciously gave way to the habit, or yielded to the temptation of softening a chord by its means.”( May,1948, pp.18-19). But of course the context is important. We may misconstrue Brahms’s reported comments if unaware of the prevailing pianism of the 1870s (and should also allow for the thirty year delay in their reporting). And the modern context, the modern ear, is also important. We do not wish to shock for the sake of it, or to unnecessarily alienate our listeners from the full enjoyment of Brahms’s extraordinairly generous muiscal philanthropy. But neither do we wish to be stylistically lazy, naïve, or unduly conservative. Andrew MacGregor’s closing comments, in his BBC Radio 3 review (for the full transcription, see Appendix) hint that we are making bold, but acceptable, propositions: “They’ve made every effort they can to recapture as much of the sound Brahms would have had in his ears and once you’ve dialled in the different balance between the instruments and the individual sounds of the three period pianos you realise that you’re also listening to three excellent performances of the Brahms Quartets”.

Returning to John Butt’s keynote speech, he sees HIP as “an historical necessity in its own right” because it is part of an inevitable post-modernist reaction to the increasingly evident shortcomings of modernism. “The culture of performance today is potentially revivified through historical considerations, and it is the present we are surely serving, rather than the past”.

These last outtakes are from the opening bars of Op. 25:

In the first extract, I linger over the first ascending sixth, as if feeling my way into the piece, and then, after a “yin and yang" catch-up in bar 2, mirror the beginnings of the first bar somewhat at the beginning of the third (what Yorgason has described as “elongated downbeats” in “inframetrical time’). But perhaps what is most telling is the beautiful colour of this straight-strung 1870 Streicher (the exact same model as gifted to Brahms in 1868). In such a simple exposed unison (albeit that the purity and transparency of sound allowed for generous pedalling) the sound itself is supremely appealing, even as it differs from today’s accepted piano sound. In choosing to present these Brahms pieces on three such different pianos we hope to make a case for plurality of piano sound, and that old instruments should be cherished and restored alongside a new craft industry creating a variety of new instruments. What a “revivification” that would be.

Ultimately we chose to make the most radical of the commercially available post-war recordings of this repertoire (whilst also acknowledging our debt to the pre-war recordings which form part of our studies).

Professor John Thwaites, November 2020.

CD Booklet-Text Only.

The three piano quartets all originated in the period 1855-62. During his visit in the autumn of 1862 it was with the Op.25 and Op.26 quartets that Brahms introduced himself to the Viennese public. Hanslick and other contemporary critics viewed Brahms’s earliest compositions as constituting his “Sturm und Drang” period. Given his life circumstances in 1855 at the time of the earliest drafts of the Op.60 quartet this could hardly be more apt. Goethe’s partly autobiographical novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) was a masterpiece born of that earlier “Sturm und Drang” whose musical outpourings included great minor key symphonies by Haydn, Mozart and others. Now Brahms felt that his own life had parallels with these iconic fictional characters. Werther had put a gun to his head as respite from an unrequited passion for Lotte, who was happily married to his friend Albert. Brahms was living with, and overflowing with admiration for Clara Schumann and her children whilst the man who had done so much to support and champion him, Robert, languished in an asylum.

Showing the reworked first movement to Hermann Dieters in 1868, Brahms said: “Now, imagine a man who is going to shoot himself, for there is nothing else to do.” And when finally publishing the revised work in 1875 he wrote to Simrock: “On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it. Now you can form some conception of the music! I’ll send you my photograph for the purpose. You can use blue coat, yellow breeches and top-boots, since you seem to like colour printing” (a reference to Werther’s attire, sometimes imitated by youths suffering “Werther Fever”)(McDonald, 1990, p. 225). Is the stark opening piano octave a pistol shot, a tolling bell? The response hangs heavy with the shadowy portents of death. As Malcolm McDonald put it: “The strings gasp out a two-note phrase that seems to catch the intonations of speech. One has the distinct impression that the violin’s Eb-D semitone speaks the name ‘Clara’ - an idea rendered less fanciful by the immediate unwinding of a transposed version of Schumann’s ‘Clara-motif’.” [C(L)A®A becomes C B A G# A. Even allowing that a cypher loses potency through transposition, the symbolic borrowing seems clear. This same transposition is quoted to open the Intermezzo in Op.25 - Eb, D, C, B natural, C.](McDonald, 1990, p. 226).

Most editions follow Simrock, leaving the sustaining pedal marking for the piano’s opening octaves open-ended, with performers raising the pedal as the strings enter (including Olive Bloom in the splendid first ever complete recording of Op.60 with the Spencer Dyke Quartet for the National Gramophonic Society in 1927). We, in common with some Historically Informed Performance Practice proponents, follow the Breitkopf and Härtel edition of 1926-7, edited by Hans Gál and based on local sources in Vienna, where the pedal release is clearly indicated 2 and then 4 bars into the string entries. Arguably this makes more sense of the notated diminuendo as well as binding the instrumental group together in their shared fate.

Fate was clearly on Brahms’s mind. The Scherzo has an obsessive’s single-mindedness, the Finale a Regenlied nostalgia (the revision contemporary with the Regenlied Op.59 No.3 of 1873) into which he gently introduces in the first bar of the piano’s left hand the Fate Motif from Beethoven’s C minor Fifth Symphony, used also in Brahms’s FAE Sonatensatz, Op.5 Piano Sonata and First Symphony.

Contrasting with largely stepwise melodic movement elsewhere, Op.60’s first movement’s second subject, introduced by solo piano in E flat “like an angel from heaven” (Kalbeck), is formed from descending fourths and thirds with a stepwise tag, clearly relating to the main ‘cello theme that opens the E major slow movement. Among tonal theorists, for Schubart E flat was “the key of love, of devotion”, C minor “the laments of unhappy love - all languishing, longing and sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key” (for Gathy, “grandiose grief”). For Mattheson, E major held “a desperate or wholly fatal sadness; it is most suited to extremes of helpless and hopeless love”. Ivor Keys wondered “whether the key of E major itself had an intrinsic quality for Brahms - perhaps of luxurious quietude at some remove from the everyday?”(Keys, 1989, p. 172). E major is also the key of Op.26’s slow movement, which has exactly this character before the piano’s catastrophic B minor “Sturm und Drang” interruption. If Kalbeck saw the Op.60’s slow movement as a secret declaration of love for Clara, then is it perhaps the fantasist’s idealised love, so heavenly, apparently so tantalisingly close, that in its ultimate frustration becomes so hard to bear? And should we also consider Brahms’s use of E major in his Op.121 where in the third song Death comes so serenely as a “welcome guest” to those who have suffered.

Two centuries after Goethe, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea is another brilliant portrait of a man so driven by a splendid, idiotic, mad obsessive love that he kidnaps another man’s wife. Charles says of Hartley: “I gave her the meaning of my life long ago, I gave it to her and she still has it” (Murdoch, 1978, p. 362). At the time of young Felix Schumann’s terminal illness Brahms wrote to Clara: “I love you more than myself and anyone or anything in the world”. (Greenberg, 2019).

There is a happier genesis for the A major Op.26, dedicated to Frau Dr. Elisabeth Rösing, in whose house in the suburbs of Hamburg, and next door to the Völckers girls from his Women’s Choir, Brahms took rooms from the summer of 1861. As he wrote to Albert Dietrich: “It is beautiful out here at Hamm; the sun shines so brightly in my room that, if I did not see the bare trees through the windows, I should believe it was summer” and later “Everything is in blossom now, and out here at Hamm it is simply a treat to listen to the nightingales singing amongst the budding trees” (Dietrich, 1899, p. 42 and 44). Op.26 is clearly inspired by the “heavenly length” and lyricism of Schubert. It is formally comfortable in its own shoes, and pastoral elements are clear in rustic drones and the horn fifths of the third movement. This Trio is also full of triplets that should be rhythmically assimilated to form melodic duples (as should passages in the first movement) in the manner familiar from Schumann (e.g. his Op.73). We play the A major’s Finale “alla Hongroise” in the Viennese sense, but of course the true Gypsy Finale is that to the G minor Op.25, where the full fruits of Brahms’s early performing partnership with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi (who had fled to Hamburg after the 1848/9 uprisings) let rip. The Streicher used on this recording has a warm, gentle sound. In the first movement it facilitates a revision of the modern balance between piano and strings, and in the second it allows us to honour Brahms’s original intention that all three string instruments should be muted. Most exciting of all is the sound world possible in the Rondo alla Zingarese, where this piano can truly imitate the sound of a cimbalom, allowing us all to embrace a café band aesthetic (and listen, for example, to the “cimbalom cadenza”, T8, 6.38). Where the Henle edition predictably offers an editorial Meno Presto at the obvious place (bar 255), we prefer those blank editions that can inspire the mildly contrarian- pushing headlong ahead with a steadying 6 bars later. On other textural matters we were fortunate to be able to contact Robert Pascall, for example about the F, viola part, bar 206 1st beat, Scherzo Op.60, where Henle follow Simrock, but the note should be A flat by analogy with bar 52, as Gál has it for Breitkopf.

Players in the early NGS recording use a lot more string portamenti than do we, our intention being an unashamedly modern players’ perspective on the refined portamenti of Arnold Rosé, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1881 (and rumoured to be an earlier owner of Susanne Stanzeleit’s Guadagnini violin). Pianist Olive Bloom hardly arpeggiates (a controversial subject when we speculate about pianism before the age of recordings), but her occasional subtle and unselfconscious asynchronicity is a perfect representation of the expressive freedom we seek in the opening of Op.26’s second movement and elsewhere. Max Fielder’s conducting of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony offers a clear model for extreme tempo flexibility which informs, for example, our handling of the opening movement of Op.25. Our approach is at an intersection of modern and period life, embracing rhythmic inequality and rubato and caring less for a clinical ensemble than for the spontaneous and free. We question everything, but enjoy the ongoing dialogue between academic enquiry and performing musicians.

If one thing is clear, it is that to generalise too much about the Performance Practice of Brahms’s day is to miss one of the most essential characteristics of that time - its plurality and variety. This applies also to the pianos of that time. Many Streichers are powerful and brilliant in a Lisztian style, and yet the one we use is mellow. Although also straight strung, the Blüthner has a much clearer, purer singing sound, and allows for visceral brilliance and power when required. In fact, the Streicher sounds more like the later cross strung Ehrbar - an extraordinarily warm instrument which inspires lyric phrasing, but can handle the rhapsodic vehemence of Op.60’s “Storm and Stress” first movement coda. We travelled to Vienna in 2018 as Brahms had in 1862 - to perform Op.25 and Op.26 - but the particular pleasure in taking an Ehrbar piano back home to the Ehrbar Hall, to a venue Brahms used in the 1870s and 1880s and with a piano from that time, was nonetheless with the piece (Op. 60) whose whole meaning had originated in the 1850s.

John Thwaites

Historically-Informed Performance Practice Symposium, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, 19th-22nd February 2018.

As a culmination of many years of research and in preparation for our recording of the Brahms piano quartets using period pianos and gut strings, we convened a four day symposium in Birmingham to workshop, debate and discuss the latest thinking in the field with Dr. Anna Scott, Claire Holden, Dr. Kate Bennett Wadsworth, Professor Ronald Woodley, Jung Yoon Cho and Job Ter Haar.

Pianist Dr. Anna Scott made a compelling case for allowing the evidence of how members of the Schumann-Brahms circle played in early recordings to “romanticise” our very conception of Brahms. Stretching and compressing pulse within an overall tempo and free expressive use of asynchronicity, arpeggiation, rhythmic alteration, agogically inflected dynamic shapes and rubato give her own performances a rich expressivity. She is also the living proof that such playing can work on the modern piano, although most keyboard players find it easier and more natural to adopt period practice on period pianos. During the symposium the Primrose used an 1850’s Wilhelm Wieck piano, having previously enjoyed access to an 1890’s Blüthner in Hampshire that was factory selected by Brahms for a student, as well as to an exceptional Erard in the former Finchcocks collection.

If pianists generally embrace the sheer beauty of early pianos, modern string players have issues with gut strings that include instability of tuning and lack of power. Fortunately these problems are mitigated by the recording process and the use of smaller pianos. Different types of gut offer an opportunity to characterise different strings with different colours (just as an early piano makes no apology for having different colours in different registers). String players in the Primrose regularly use gut, and have been taught, like so many in our generation, by teachers with close and direct links back to Brahms. Discussion and experimentation with expressive slides (portamento), extreme (to modern ears) time taking and speeding up, varying colours with varied vibrato, bow speed, and bow pressure was informed by Claire Holden’s work on early recordings of the Vienna Philharmonic, which also revealed that orchestra’s ability to come in and out of pure ensemble in order to make part playing more transparent and lines freer and more expressive where appropriate. We also heard from Dr Kate Bennett Wadsworth about her preparations for her recording of the Brahms cello sonatas, using the Bärenreiter edition that she prepared with Professor Clive Brown, considering how the fingerings and bowings of contemporary cellists had interpretational implications. This informed our own work on editions, aided by observations from friends and students when we undertook additional workshops.

In this company we were inspired to let our hair down and give a performance of Op.26 that felt creative, imaginative and new. Recording in Vienna was equally inspiring. And the search for “How to Perform Brahms in the Twenty-First Century” (to borrow Professor Clive Brown’s phrase) is only in its second decade! Primrose Piano Quartet

The Pianos used in this Recording (Gert Hecher Collection, Vienna)

Julius Blüthner founded his piano workshop in 1853, however we know from contemporary accounts that he only started building the first instruments in the spring of 1854. The serial number of the Blüthner piano used in this recording - 926 - points towards it being one of the few surviving instruments from the company’s early period. Shortly after this time the workshop grew into a busy factory and production went through the roof; 1920 saw the 100,000th piano being built.

The piano No.926 measures 215cm in length with rosewood veneer. It is straight-strung and contains the unique Blüthner action patented by Julius Blüthner immediately after the firm’s foundation. This is an English double action with a simple but very effective escapement. The touch is light and fast and the sound clear and lyrical. It is no accident that Blüthner quickly became accepted as one of the best piano manufacturers.

The pianos of Johann Streicher are a true legend. In 1867 Streicher was the only continental European piano manufacturer to be awarded the gold medal at the World Exhibition. His workshop was one of the very best in Vienna. It survived for a period of about 100 years, from 1794 to 1896. Famous exponents of Streicher pianos include Beethoven, Weber, Hummel, Clara Schumann, Hiller, Liszt, Brahms and many more. The piano used in this recording was built in 1870 and bears the serial number 7084. It measures 240 cm in length with rosewood veneer. It is also straight strung and contains a patent action but this time Streicher’s own - also not a Viennese but an English double action. Roughly a quarter of Streicher’s pianos were built with this action, and this piano is identical to the instrument given to Brahms for his indefinite use by Streicher in 1868. Sadly most of Brahms’s piano was destroyed in the chaos of the final years of the Second World War and only a few parts survived. Streicher’s pianos are renowned for their particularly colourful sound rich in overtones with a wide dynamic range.

Friedrich Ehrbar grew up in Hildesheim, Germany, and came to Vienna in 1848 together with Heinrich Engelhart Steinweg. They both found employment in the workshop of the eminent piano manufacturer, Eduard Seuffert. While Steinweg only remained in Vienna for a few months before emigrating to America where he modified his name and founded the world famous Steinway & Sons factory, Ehrbar stayed on and quickly rose to the position of workshop foreman. Seuffert died in 1857 and Ehrbar, in keeping with tradition in those days, went on to marry Seuffert’s widow and take over the company. Ehrbar became one of the most innovative piano manufacturers in Vienna. His friendship with the Steinways continued throughout his life, and this is reflected in his instruments. Ehrbar was the first person in the rather conservative Viennese environment to introduce American inventions such as cross-stringing, single cast frame and the duplex scale. In addition it was Ehrbar, not Steinway who invented the Sostenuto pedal - although Steinways copied his idea soon thereafter in slightly altered form.

The grand piano with serial number 7311 dates from 1878. This was the most modern piano available in Vienna at the time; it measures 260cm in length, is cross-strung and equipped with modern double repetition action. It also features a rather attractive black case in the style of the Wiener Ringstrasse. Ehrbar’s pianos are renowned for their round and rich bass and a particularly singing and soft descant.

Brahms, who mainly earned his living as a concert pianist, was extremely familiar with the instruments of all three manufacturers. His favourite pianos were those made by Streicher, which he would always recommend to others. Indeed, the piano he chose for his only recording was a Streicher. When performing in Germany he would usually choose a Blüthner piano to play on, as he did for for first performance of the Piano Concerto No.1 - infamous for the disastrous reviews the concert received. Brahms’s connection to Ehrbar is equally fascinating: a few weeks before the official première of his Fourth Symphony he performed his own version for two pianos with Ignaz Brüll to an audience of friends in the company’s own concert hall - the Ehrbar Hall used for the recording of this disc. In a pun typical of his sense of humour he called the performance “eine ehrbahre Annäherung”, which translates as “a respectable approximation”. All three instruments used in this recording are therefore particularly relevant to Brahms’s output as composer and performing musician, and they perfectly convey the sound world in which he moved.

Gert Hecher (Trans. Susanne Stanzeleit)


Reference List:

Brown, C. (2015), Performing Practices in Johannes Brahms’ Chamber Music, Clive Brown, Neal Peres Da Costa, Kate Bennett Wadsworth. Bärenreiter BA 9600 Kassel

Butt, J. (2016), Playing with History Again, keynote speech for Indiana Jacobs School of Music Historical Performance Institute, available at>blog>playing-with-history (accessed October 2020).

Cobbett, W.W. (1929), Cobbett’s Cyclopedic History of Chamber Music, including an article by Fanny Davies, Volume 1, pp182-185, Oxford University Press.

Dietrich, A. (1899), Recollections of Johannes Brahms, trans. Dora Hecht, first published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, reprinted in 2012 by Forgotten Books PIBN 1000143200

Greenberg, R. (2019), Battered but not Broken. Robert Greenberg Music. (accessed December 2020). Greenberg quotes the 1874 letter that Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann in the final stages of Felix Schumann’s tuberculosis.

Hamilton, K. (2008), After the Golden Age, Oxford University Press.

Kalbeck, M. (1904-14) Johannes Brahms, Berlin.

Keys, I. (1989), Johannes Brahms, Christopher Helm Publishers Ltd, London.

Leech-Wilkinson, D. (accessed October 2020).

May, F (1948), The Life of Johannes Brahms, published in German in 1911, in this version in English prepared in 1905 but not published in London until 1948, republished by Travis and Emery 2009.

Mcdonald, M. (1990), Brahms. Dent Master Musicians ed. Stanley Sadie. J. M. Dent, London.

Murdoch, I. (1978) The Sea, The Sea, Triad Grafton Books, London.

Steblin, R. (1981) A History of Key Characteristics in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries, Indiana/Bawker Publishing Company, Epping, England.

Yorgason, B (2009), Expressive Asynchronicity and Meter: a study of dispersal, downbeat space and metric drift, Indiana University PhD (accessed October 2020).


Appendix: Specialist and Mainstream Critical Reaction.

Record Review-Brahms/McGregor. Primrose Piano Quartet, Brahms Piano Quartets, Meridian CDE84650/1-2 Transcript of Record Review, BBC Radio 3, 9th March 2019.

Andrew McGregor: “ Now here’s a recording of the three Brahms Piano Quartets with a difference. It’s from the Primrose Piano Quartet. They’ve done as much as they can to make their performances as historically informed as possible, researching manuscripts and editions, listening to the earliest recordings from the 1920’s, right through to their choice of instruments and the string players’ use of a mix of gut and metal-wound strings, limited vibrato, some expressive slides as well, and pianist John Thwaites plays three different instruments of the kind Brahms would have known. The difference it makes is immediately obvious in the first chords of the C minor Quartet Op. 60.

The first movement of Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor Op. 60 played by the Primrose Quartet: violinist Susanne Stanzeleit; viola player Dorothea Vogel; cellist Andrew Fuller and pianist John Thwaites, who’s playing three different period pianos for these performances from a Viennese collection. You just heard the sound of a piano by Friedrich Ehrbar, the most modern Viennese piano in the 1870’s. When Brahms performed the piano duet version of his fourth symphony he played one of these very instruments in the company’s Ehrbar Concert Hall in Vienna, which is where this new recording was made.

They’ve made every effort they can to recapture as much of the sound Brahms would have had in his ears and once you’ve dialled in the different balance between the instruments and the individual sounds of the three period pianos you realise that you’re also listening to three excellent performances of the Brahms Quartets. I’ve enjoyed them a great deal. You’ll find them on two CDs from the Meridian Label and you get excellent informative notes by John Thwaites as part of the package. That’s not the last fine chamber music you’ll hear this morning…”

The Strad September 2019 Description: Not an ounce of spare fat on Brahms in transformative period performances   …… these fine performances seek not only to provide a flavour of the sonorities prevalent during the last three decades of the 19th century, but also to brush aside the cobwebs of stultifying interpretative tradition by going back to the original sources. Using gut strings with lustrous intimacy and tonal radiance, violinist Susanne Stanzeleit, violist Dorothea Vogel and cellist Andrew Fuller complement the chamber-scale pianistic luminosity of John Thwaites with a sensitivity to texture and articulation that contrasts startlingly at times with the warm bath of sound associated customarily with these glorious scores. The ‘Gypsy’ finale of the G minor Quartet (no.1), for example, lacks nothing in exhilarating forward momentum and impassioned pizzazz, yet instead of being greeted by the usual wall of pseudo-symphonic sound, the effect is as though one were sitting in an intimate salon. The C minor (no.3) also emerges as more restlessly brooding than usual, with countless details emerging that often lie hidden beneath a haze of sonic opulence. However, it is the more overtly lyrical A major (no.2) that is most memorably transformed here, with a flexibility of phrasing, organic suppleness of tempo and tender espressivo that are deeply affecting….

Julian Haylock

American Brahms Society (Spring 2019 Newsletter, Vol. 37, no. 1) Recorded in Ehrbar Hall in Vienna using period instruments, including a Blüthner, an Ehrbar, and a Streicher piano, these spacious and transparent readings incorporate the conventions of period performance style in unusually fresh and expressive ways. Especially noteworthy is the sense of spontaneity that comes from a willingness to abandon modern fussiness about fastidious ensemble playing and to embrace a sometimes breath-taking elasticity of tempo and generosity of gesture.

William Horne