Brahms and Joachim at Wiltons-again!

Posted on January 8th, 2010 by

Joseph Joachim

On Sunday May 22nd, the Kreutzers returned to Wiltons with a  concert inspired by the relationship between the great Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms. We played the pair of quartets Op 51, alongside an extraordinary four part duo by the Hungarian virtuoso. 

Here is an extract from the concert, the slow movement of the Op 51 no 1 Quartet (C minor). If ever there was a movement directly inspired by the integrity and lyrcism which Joachim brought, particularly to the performance of Beethoven, this is it.

Listen: Op51 (Slow)

Kreutzer Quartet (PSS, Mihailo Trandafilovski, Morgan Goff, Neil Heyde)

Wiltons Music Hall 23rd May 2010
Engineer-Colin Still (OpticNerve)

Clara to Brahms  Dusseldorf May 29 1861 

Joachim played divinely. We both received laurel wreaths but in addition he was literally bombarded with bouquets by the ladies. I don’t think I have ever heard him play so magnificently. But one always thinks that! He did me the pleasure of remaining here half a day longer, which after all the turmoil was very enjoyable. But we were both very tired. Unfortunately on his return journey to Hanover he might have met with a serious accident. His train ran at full speed into another, the carriages slipped the lines and the buffers smashed to atoms like glass. One or two passengers were seriously injured but he came off with a blow on his head (caused by his violin falling on him from the rack). It is terrible to thing that such a thing can happen in a flash to decide the fate of a beloved fellow creature!…

The second of these quartets, in A minor (Op 51 No 2), is built around the notes F-A-E. These stand for the first letters of Joachim’s motto-Frei aber Einsam (Free but alone). This equilibrium of the opening of this quartet is set in counterpoint with the Beethovenian furore of the C minor (Op 51 No 1). This mood, and the key, pointedly recall the piano quartet which Brahms had started for Clara Schumann, but had not yet finished. Brahms was open that this work was based on the extraordinary popular Goethe novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, implying that he was the unlucky Werther, and Clara the unattainable ‘Lotte’. The link to Clara is perhaps even clearer if another way of describing the keys of this pair of quartets is used C-La … perhaps standing for Clara, as the over-reeaching theme of these symphonic works.

 To hear the distinctive sound of the ‘Joachim’ Stradivari 1698, played by PSS, go to:

Joseph Joachim

 Some aspects of Joachim’s artistry, in the words of his contemporaries.

 In the course of the past year, publicly exploring aspects of Joachim’s impact, a paradox repeatedly presented itself. It was Joachim who, simultaneously, or so it seemed to me, established what might seem to be clean contrary approaches to the violin. Joachim was the first player to be celebrated for incorporating Eastern European folk tradition and ardour into his compositions and performance. Yet, he was also the first performer to be internationally acclaimed for the performance of Bach’s solo violin works, and for the clarity with which he delivered those works. Perhaps it was this very contradiction that endeared him to Brahms.

Gounod summed it up well.


“Votre jeu est si chaud et si sage en même temps.” Gounod to Joachim. (Quoted by W W Cobbett, in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic survey of Chamber Music, Volume II, W W Cobbett, OUP, London, 1930, P.38)

 George Bernard Shaw, was at once  a Joachim admirer in Britain and his harshest critic. He did not pull his punches when Joachim’s playing declined in old age:

  ‘On the Subject of Fiddling’ The Star, 28 February 1890. “I must first mention, however, that Joachim was never to me an Orpheus. Like all the pupils of Mendelssohn he has seldom done anything with an allegro except try to make speed to duty for meaning. Now that he is on the verge of sixty he keeps up the speed at the cost of quality of tone and accuracy of pitch; and the results are sometimes, to say the least, incongruous…Of course, you cannot really play a fugue in three continuous parts on the violin: but by dint of double stopping and dodging from one part to another, you can evoke a hideous ghost of a fugue that will pass current if guaranteed by Bach and Joachim. That was what happened on Tuesday. Joachim scraped away frantically, making a sound after which an attempt to grate nutmeg effectively on a boot sole would have been as the strain of an Eolian harp. The notes which were discernible enough to have any discernible pitch at all were horribly out of tune. It was horrible-damnable! Had he been an unknown player, introducing an unknown composer, he would not have escaped with his life. Yet we all-I no less than the others-were interested and enthusiastic. We applauded like anything, and he bowed to us with unimpaired gravity. The dignified artistic career of Joachim and the grandeur of Bach’s reputation had so hypnotised us that we took an abominable noise for the music of the spheres.” (Shaw’s Music, Ed. Dan H Laurence, The Bodley Head, London, 1981, Volume 1, Pp.933-4) 

 As much mythology was built up around Joachim’s playing as surrounded Paganini, although it was less dramatic, as it often centred on his apparently laconic classicism. This led to writing such as the following, which appeared in the 1930’s:

 “Joachim…was a champion of the classics, the best interpreter, in his day, of Bach and Beethoven, and he is said never to have touched a composition by Vieuxtemps of or Paganini. His compositions bear the stamp of a serious ideal, and, although they are by no means free from bravura writing, claim to be considered solely as music.”( The Musical Companion, Edited by A.Bacharach, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, 1934, P.633)

 Joachim certainly did play the music of Paganini and Vieuxtemps. In 1855 he wrote the following:

To Clara Schumann­, HANOVER, Wednesday, 4pm. [April  4, 1855]-“ I have begun to practise hard so that we can play the Paganini Studies, which I am dying to hear, in the summer. I hope to play them at Endenich with Johannes some time”

 However, perhaps Joachim’s greatest achievement was in having raised the expectations and standards of chamber music, and most particularly of Quartet-playing:

 “What made his ensemble playing unique was his power of moulding his phrases and impressing upon his associates the form he had chosen; his modifications of time were the slightest possible, hardly approaching what would be called ‘rubato’ but tending in that direction. While the other instruments were exercising the same privilege, he followed them with a faithfulness that suggested self-abnegation, and nothing was more remarkable than the way the leader of the quartet would at times retreat into the background. In theatrical phrase, he knew precisely when to come into the limelight, and when to retire.” (J A Fuller Maitland, in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic survey of Chamber Music, Volume II, W W Cobbett, OUP, London, 1930, P.37)

 Unlike many players today, he endeavoured to stay in low positions. This ensured the greatest ‘ring’ of harmonics and overtones, and was linked to the strikingly pure intonation, which can be shocking to modern ears, on his late recordings:

 “He preferred the frank and lovely freshness of the E string of a Strad violin to notes played in the high positions of the A.” (W W Cobbett, in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic survey of Chamber Music, Volume II, W W Cobbett, OUP, London, 1930, P.38)

 Even while he lived, the impact of his example was clear. Here is a fairly typical assessment of his achievement published soon after his death:

 “German violin art gradually but irresistibly drifted to Berlin, where Joseph Joachim reigned in absolute supremacy, This great master brings us to a sphere of influence…the School of Vienna. Certain national characteristics, blended with Hungarian tinges have given this school a stamp its own…Böhm, the master of this ideal of the virtuoso (Ernst) was also the master of that ideal of an interpreter of the classics, Joachim, It shows that a teacher can-nay, should-only do so much and no more. He may, like the sculptor as it were, hew out of the raw block the general form and outline of this statue; inherited disposition, circumstances, etc. , will give it its feature, life, beauty and character. Joachim is, perhaps, the most remarkable figure in modern violin art; to do anything like justice to his importance would far exceed the space at my command…As executant he must rightly claim the distinction of having raised to its highest possible level purely reproductive art…his chosen path lay in interpreting in as objective a manner as possible all that is best in violin literature.” (The History of the Violin,  Paul Stoeving, Walter Scott Publishing Co Ltd, London, Pp.233-4)