Johannes Brahms: Piano Quartet No.2 in A major Op.26 (orchestrated by Kenneth Woods)

The idea for this orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet in A Major came to me spontaneously in a flash of inspiration while I was coaching chamber music at the Ischia Chamber Music Festival in 2008. I vividly remember the bright blue sea and cloudless sky over Mount Epomeo that morning as I listened to a group play though the first movement of the piece in its original form. As I began to work with them, I found myself speaking to the pianist, as I often do, in orchestral terms. “Can you try playing the opening phrase more like…. a quartet of hunting horns?” I asked. His playing sounded more convincing with that in mind, but that sound concept had also planted itself firmly in my inner ear. After the coaching I had a bit of free time, and found myself listening to an imaginary orchestral version of the entire first movement emerging from that horn quartet. I was fascinated by the ways in which I thought an orchestral realisation could bring to the fore some the nature imagery and vernacular music that is present in the original. By the end of that morning, I’d decided to try to undertake a realization of the orchestration. It took several years from that morning on Ishcia to complete this orchestration. After my initial work on it in 2008, the piece was set to one side while I attended to other projects with firmer deadlines. The final version was premiered on 21 November, 2017 with the English Symphony Orchestra in Cheltenham Town Hall.

The scores of Brahms’ Four Symphonies are like a sacred text for me. They are among the most studied, most loved, most performed works in my library. In trying to understand his use of the orchestra well enough to translate this Piano Quartet into a symphonic sound world, I’ve found my admiration for Brahms’ achievement continuing to grow. [Kenneth Woods]

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The starting point for this orchestral transcription of Brahms's A major Piano Quartet was a chamber coaching session in 2008, where cellist and conductor Kenneth Woods suggested that the pianist play the soft opening fanfare “like a quartet of hunting horns”. Woods made a point of not listening to Schoenberg's flamboyant version of the G minor Piano Quartet, and his realisation is less eccentric and more obviously Brahmsian. You won't find xylophones or trombone glissandi here. It's the tutti string scoring which feels instantly right, the viola and cello writing especially idiomatic. I’m not convinced by everything Woods does – the high opening horn parts are more taxing than anything you'd find in this composer’s output, and the glowering low brass chords near the start of the slow movement suggest Sibelius's Finlandia, but these are minor niggles. He's effectively given us an additional Brahms symphony.

Woods’ versatile English Symphony Orchestra respond with energy and warmth, and it's fun to compare their rich sound with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Robin Ticciati's recent set of the symphonies. This quartet is an early, extrovert piece and Woods taps into the music’s unbuttoned joy. The first movement’s close is a case in point, a cheery, affirmative musical hug, pitched to perfection in this performance. Depths are plumbed in Brahms's “Poco Adagio”, and the scherzo’s ingenuity shines through. And while the G minor quartet finishes with a blaze of nihilistic fury, this one ends in a blaze of brassy sunlight. All fascinating – a labour of love, handsomely recorded with decent notes.  Graham Rickson,

One may have principled reasons, whether raising an eyebrow or being downright hostile, to anything that goes against a composer’s intentions (although transcriptions are a centuries-old tradition), specifically here a change of setting, from intimate group to symphony orchestra – which is not to be confused with something orchestral being wantonly altered within its ranks by the likes of Stokowski or, conversely, a Good Samaritan act that rescues something left-unfinished yet significant for our reward, such as Deryck Cooke’s Mahler 10 and Anthony Payne’s Elgar 3 in which various degrees of third-party speculation were necessary to ensure fruition.

Kenneth Woods has orchestrated Brahms’s A-major Piano Quartet (in the booklet he goes into considered detail as to why) and, of course, he has a pertinent precedent in Schoenberg’s scoring of Opus 26’s immediate G-minor predecessor, somewhat quirky in orchestral use (in relation to Brahms’s own examples in his Symphonies and Concertos) if colourful and likeable, even fun in the Finale. Woods is more conservative in his choices (unlike Schoenberg), not using any instrument that Brahms didn’t write for, or so my ears tell me, yet what he’s done invites numerous references.

Thus the opening, and arresting, opening is for horns, very Brahmsian, yet the mind leaps to Schumann (his Opus 86 Konzertstück for those instruments), and for all that the expansive exposition (duly repeated) has in Woods’s tints allusions to Brahms’s Opus 11 Serenade there are also passages that are now revealed as Elgarian. These are not criticisms for there are some fascinating interconnections suggested, and the large-scale opening movement (seventeen minutes) takes on the mantle of a heroic tale, a forest legend. The Adagio includes ominous growly brass, a sinister sound amidst mellifluous lyricism – there is always the sense that the music is about something (Hansel and Gretel meeting the Witch), not least when an impassioned climax is reached. The Scherzo (if more an intermezzo) could now be credited to Dvořák, nothing wrong with that, with elements of outdoors and folksiness, veiled emotions too, with greater (Slavonic Dance) exuberance emerging, and the Finale has a Sullivan-esque pace and skip, at least until the heavier-hearted second subject arrives.

With Woods conducting there can be no doubt that his intentions are fully revealed, certainly with excellent playing and a clear recording, if a little hard and dry. Wood’s achievement, made over several years and then revised in time for this recording, is considerable and imaginative, and should appeal to open-minded Brahms-lovers, and fans of the other composers cited, to sample a chamber masterpiece in an appealing new light. I have relished (and also slightly questioned) Woods’s version several times, and shall do so again.  Colin Anderson,

"In every respect, this is a fine achievement, which deserves a place as a classical next to the original version. It preserves Brahms’s Romantic trait and, without wandering off the path of the original composition, it adds many evocative elements to which only an orchestra can give prominence and that an excellent performance as the one recorded here further enhances.

 "The English Symphony Orchestra plays with stylishness and its sound is bright, perfectly captured by the engineering. Its colours are shimmering and precious and in several passages different instruments (especially woodwinds) play embellishments of commendable beauty. The playing is smooth, remarkable especially for the white hot sound of the brasses and for the silkiness of the strings.

 "Under Woods’s baton, the music flows with brilliance and in a lean way... coloured by an incredible range of emotional subtlety while more agitated passages are valuable for their precision and crisp articulation.”

The musical legacy of Johannes Brahms contributed to the perfection of a language that was closer to the classical tradition, preserved and transmitted by Mozart and Beethoven, than from the innovation transmitted by Wagner. Schönberg, who admired Brahms, despite his conservatism, orchestrated, with a recharged instrumentation, the Quartet for piano no. 1, Op. 25, by Johannes Brahms, written in 1861 and premiered by the members of the famous Hellmesberger Quartet, with the same composer on the piano.

I add, by way of example, that Schönberg discovered in the technique of the variation of Brahms the basic elements to develop his harmonic innovations. The connections and affinities between the two composers are of undeniable artistic significance. Kenneth Woods, who assumed in 2013 the artistic direction of the English Symphony Orchestra - International Orchestra of Elgar Country - is also the author of a blog that publishes articles of a high musical and intellectual level and is usually a regular guest at BBC radio shows.

The artistic excellence of the Worcestershire Orchestra, the English Symphony Orchestra (ESO), is due to the talent, creativity and leadership of Woods. The English label Nimbus Alliance has released a new recording that, due to its musical and sound qualities, it is highly recommended to listen to. The compact disc picks up the latest orchestral work, very elaborate, by Kenneth Woods, a director with a great personality.

The American cellist and conductor have orchestrated the Quartet for piano No. 2, op. 26, suppressing the piano part, as did Arnold Schönberg at the time. In his orchestration, Kenneth Woods used the score edited by Hans Gál, published in 1927 by the Breitkopf und Härtel and, as a good researcher, has consulted other critical editions.

Woods gives faith to the melodic ideas of Brahms that testify to the influence of Schubert. One of the most repetitive thoughts of Woods was to imagine how to transform Brahms's piano writing to an orchestral medium. It should be noted that the sobriety of Brahms does not play much harmony garlands or melodic ornaments; Still, he achieves a spectacular result.

I have no doubt: Kenneth Woods is a creator.  Sonograma Magazine

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