Belcea Quartet

The Belcea Quartet plays Brahms I

The string quartet is joined by Amihai Grosz, solo viola in the Berlin Philharmonic, for a programme of Brahms’s chamber music. Available until 23 May 2022.

Video available until 23 May 2022

Chamber music aficionados and music critics all over the world know and value the Belcea Quartet as one of the best string quartets of our time. At the digital 2021 Hamburg International Music Festival, the ensemble devotes itself on two consecutive evenings to Johannes Brahms’s works for string quartet, quintet and sextet, and is joined by prominent guests for the latter two formats. Their first recital features the weighty String Quartet Op. 51/1 and the second String Quintet Op. 111 – a bold late work by the Hamburg composer. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s solo viola, Amihai Grosz, joins the Belcea for the quintet.


Note: All Hamburg International Music Festival 2021 concerts are available to stream free of charge. Once premiered, each concert stream can be accessed for the whole festival period.

An overview of all 2021 festival concerts.

Corina Belcea über Brahms’ Werke für Streichensemble


Belcea Quartet
Corina Belcea violin
Axel Schacher violin
Krzysztof Chorzelski viola
Antoine Lederlin violoncello

Amihai Grosz viola


Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51/1 (1873)
String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111 (1890)

Duration: approx. 60 minutes

The Artists

Belcea Quartet

Amihai Grosz – Viola

Amihai  mit Bratsche
Amihai mit Bratsche © Edith Held

A giant breathing down his neck :Brahms, Beethoven and chamber music

»It really is a great shame that Brahms only left us three string quartets,« sighs Krzysztof Chorzelski, violist in the Belcea Quartet. »But the three we have are nothing if not impressive.«

This comment sums up a central characteristic of Brahms’s chamber music (and indeed of his symphonies): modest quantity and outstanding quality are like two sides of the same coin here. And there is a name attached to this phenomenon: Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven had set standards with his music that no other composer felt able to compete with long after his death. Franz Schubert complained that »no one is capable of producing anything since Beethoven«, and Brahms wrote to his friend, the conductor Hermann Levi, »You can have no idea how it feels for the likes of us to hear a giant always marching behind one.«

»You can have no idea how it feels for the likes of us to hear a giant always marching behind one.«

Johannes Brahms

In Brahms’s case it was additionally counterproductive that his colleague Robert Schumann had declared him to be Beethoven’s de facto successor in a legendary 1853 newspaper article. Brahms felt placed under such pressure by this expectation that he developed a serious neurosis, and gave a wide berth to those musical genres where Beethoven had attained his greatest achievements: the symphony and the string quartet. He had already written a quartet in B minor which none other than Schumann had recommended to his publisher, but he proceeded to throw the score into the fire without further ado.  Only on his own instrument, the piano, did Brahms feel confident enough to stand up to his overpowering predecessor.

Johannes Brahms, 1880. Adolf Neumann: Die Gartenlaube
Johannes Brahms, 1880. Adolf Neumann: Die Gartenlaube © Wikimedia Commons

Wrestling match with Beethoven :Johannes Brahms: String Quartet, Op. 51/1

More than 20 years were to pass before Brahms’s official first string quartet and his first symphony were performed in public. We will never know how many sketches, studies and drafts the composer produced and then discarded during this time. He once claimed that 20 complete quartets had thus been consigned to oblivion:

»When I was last in Hamburg, I went up to the attic and found the entire room wallpapered with my music, even the ceiling. I only had to lie on my back to admire my sonatas and quartets. They looked pretty good up there. Then I ripped them all down and burned them – it was better for me to do it than someone else!«

Johannes Brahms

Not until he was 40 did Brahms publish his first two string quartets under the opus number 51 – although, as letters from his friends Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann prove, both scores had lain in his drawer for years. In the meantime, however, Brahms had been appointed artistic director of the prestigious Vienna institution Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, which seems to have given his self-confidence a boost.

Just as he did with his piano quartets, concert overtures and clarinet sonatas, Brahms opted for publication in pairs in order not to have to balance out different musical moods within a single piece. By publishing a pair of works together, he was able to depict greater extremes, creating a balance by contrasting the two works with one another. Thus the two Op. 51 quartets are marked by a pronounced contrast between dark and light. It’s hard to imagine a gloomier opening than that of the first of these two quartets: aggressive repetitions drive a nervous, ascending theme whose dotted rhythm even spills over into the second movement, a lyrical romance, and returns with force in the finale.

»You can hear the struggle with his great role model Beethoven in nearly every bar.«

Krzysztof Chorzelski

Krzysztof Chorzelski adds: »The choice of key, C minor, is in itself typical of Beethoven. It cannot be a coincidence that Brahms set both his first quartet and his first symphony in C minor.«

Text: Clemens Matuschek
Translation: Clive Williams

Farewell announcement :Johannes Brahms: String Quintet No. 2

There has always been a certain myth surrounding last works, an expectation of the hereafter, as though the premonition of the approaching farewell had carved itself indelibly into the score. A composer’s final work is also referred to as his »swan song«: the Mozart Requiem fits into this category, likewise Mahler’s Ninth, Schubert’s C major String Quintet – and by a hair’s breadth Brahms’s second string quintet as well. At least, the Hamburg-born composer took it into his head to end his career with this piece in 1890. »With this note you can say goodbye to my music,« he wrote to his publisher, »it’s time for me to stop now…«

»With this note you can say goodbye to my music, it's time for me to stop now…«

Johannes Brahms

Initially, this quintet doesn’t sound like a farewell at all. The effusive theme in the cello part soars enthusiastically from the lower register up to the high notes, with the accompanying parts dashing along beside it. But as the music progresses, little cracks begin to appear: bittersweet suspensions cloud the Viennese waltz tunes that follow, where Brahms doffs his hat to his friend Johann Strauss, and asymmetrical rhythms sabotage the whimsical triple time.

Johannes Brahms & Johann Strauß (Sohn) in Bad Ischl (1894, Rudolf Krziwanek)
Johannes Brahms & Johann Strauß (Sohn) in Bad Ischl (1894, Rudolf Krziwanek) © Austrian National Library

Then the »wonderfully brief adagio«, as Brahms praised the movement to his favourite violinist Joseph Joachim, adopts a soft and wistful tone. The composer’s enthusiasm was presumably not only ignited by the adagio’s intimate character and bold harmonies. The predominant sequence of notes f-a-gis-e (F-A -G sharp-E) presented by the viola also contains the initials of Joachim’s personal motto »frei, aber einsam« (free but lonely). It seems unlikely that the violinist would not have noticed this reference in the score; after all, Brahms, Robert Schumann and Schumann’s pupil Albert Dietrich had dedicated to him back in 1853 the so-called »F.A.E. Sonata«, which likewise takes the three notes of its title as the basis for all its movements.

It almost seems as if musical memories of the ageing Brahms were passing by in this movement. Among them are also the quivering tremolos, plucked notes and augmented intervals: little references to the Hungarian folk music that Brahms had an enduring fondness for.

The quicker third movement is likewise played »all’ongarese«, carrying on the melancholy character of the music: the violin tune consists exclusively of so-called sighing motifs, small descending gestures. Only in the finale does Brahms return to the exuberance of the opening with a spirited csárdás, the Hungarian folk dance that he had often heard played by virtuoso gypsy bands in the Vienna amusement park Prater – another fond recollection.

Even if it was intended as a farewell piece, the String Quintet No. 2 is certainly not Brahms’s gloomiest composition. But possibly one of the works with the strongest contrasts, containing as it does the moods, styles and memories of an entire life.

And how did things go on with Brahms? Fortunately for posterity, his creative abstinence didn’t last long. Only a year later, he made the acquaintance of the gifted clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld – and took up his pen once more.

Text: Laura Etspüler
Translation: Clive Williams

Supported by the Kühne Foundation, the Hamburg Ministry of Culture and Media, Stiftung Elbphilharmonie and the Förderkreis Internationales Musikfest Hamburg

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