The Primrose Piano Quartet is widely regarded as one of the U.K.’s leading chamber ensembles. They are named after the great viola player William Primrose, and they enjoy a busy performing schedule worldwide, with regular appearances at London’s major concert halls. The ensemble’s most recent recording focuses on the complete piano quartets of Johannes Brahms. I visited the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire last week to chat to the quartet’s pianist, Professor John Thwaites (who is Head of Keyboard Studies at the RBC), about the history and background surrounding these intimate works.
MS: The Primrose Piano Quartet (pictured above) have performed and recorded a substantial and varied repertoire. How long have you been together, how do you structure your programmes, and what influences your repertoire choices?
JT: We’ve been together since 2002, and there have been a couple of changes since. Susanne (Susanne Stanzeleit: violin) and I were founder members and we are still there. Dot (Dorothea Vogel: viola) and Andrew (Andrew Fuller: ’cello) are more recent members. We initially made a big focus of British Twentieth Century repertoire, so a lot of our early CD releases and concerts feature this repertoire. For example, we played at the Wigmore Hall for the centenary of William Hurlstone’s birth. Which was a lovely thing to do. We did that linked to the Asthma Society because Hurlstone was asthmatic. One of the reasons he died in his early twenties was that he taught harmony at the Royal College of Music and taught using chalk. The chalk dust affected his lungs and he had to go for frequent long walks in the park! It was all very tragic. But an amazing story. He wrote a very beautiful piano quartet which we’ve played a lot.
One of the interesting things about the British repertoire is trying to popularise it abroad. There are countries, including, for example, Denmark and Germany, where they’ve been very interested to hear our slightly unusual British repertoire. And that’s also linked to my role here, because when we have students coming from abroad, particularly the Far East, they are coming here partly as a European Country, and to learn standard repertoire, but they are also extremely receptive to the British repertoire. They tend to fall in love with it, take it back home and keep playing it. And that’s exciting.
So in our case, we dug out all the more interesting and unusual piano quartets from the early part of the Twentieth Century. The ones that stick in my mind; there’s a beautiful one by Thomas Dunhill (who is known for his educational piano pieces), and we’ve played it many times and recorded it. And then masterpieces like the Herbert Howells Piano Quartet. The Howells is dedicated to the hill at Chosen, now known as Churchdown Hill (a large mound of a hill between Cheltenham and Gloucester offering spectacular views), which was frequented by Herbert Howells and his childhood friend, composer Ivor Gurney. It’s a beautiful hill, which I’ve got to know very well!
We also added to our repertoire by commissioning. The two most famous composers that we’ve commissioned are Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Anthony Payne. Both works by these composers are significant substantial pieces. It was great working with them because it gives you an insight into how they work. And not only how they work, but how one might work with a composer from the past, such as Brahms. The sense of freedom and flexibility you have when working with a living composer perhaps ought to be replicated when we are dealing with someone no longer amongst us.
There are about twelve master pieces for piano quartet and we’ve played them all. Other than that, we are looking at other interesting pieces which go off in Nationalistic avenues. We are also following specialist interests like this Brahms project. Some programmes are specialist and some programmes are just a nice mixture of masterpieces.
MS: Many congratulations on your latest recording. Tell us a little about the history behind these works.
JT: They are all early works in the sense that they were drafted in the late 1850s and early 1860s, but then the case of the one that was the first to be drafted, which was the C minor, (it was originally drafted in C sharp minor), and it didn’t find its finished form until the 1870s, and so therefore came out as Op. 60. That’s the one that’s closest to the Sturm und Drang issue of Brahms living in the Schumann household before Schumann went away to the asylum, and indeed afterwards!
The whole issue of Brahms as a programmatic composer is interesting in that we tend to think of him as an absolute composer in contrast to Liszt or Wagner, but now we know it’s not quite as simple as that. Brahms himself suggested that a picture of Werther could be put on the front cover of this piano quartet. There are other chamber music works, where it seems to me that the biographical element is particularly strong. One would be the horn trio (Horn Trio in E flat major Op. 40), which seems so clearly to be a reference to the death of Brahms’ mother, and it’s around that same time that he wrote the Requiem (German Requiem Op. 45). When you start looking for all these clues, there’s a whole new element of academic thinking now with allusion and referencing, which I’ve enjoyed getting in to.
The Op. 25 (in G minor) and Op. 26 (in A major) quartets were written in what appears to have been quite a happy time for him, living in the suburbs of Hamburg in the early 1860s. Then he took them on tour to Vienna. So they were an important part of him announcing himself in Vienna in 1862. And that led on to him deciding to settle permanently in Vienna in 1868. This links nicely with us. We introduced ourselves to Vienna by turning up as a piano quartet, and also going to one of the halls we know Brahms worked in.
MS: You recorded the disc in the Ehrbar Hall (pictured above) on period instruments and I wondered what influenced your decision?
JT: It’s worth mentioning Gert Hecher, who lives in Vienna. It’s an interesting story, how I met him. I was playing in Budapest with the ‘cellist Alexander Baillie, and I’d heard that there was a piano for sale in Vienna which I was initially interested in, but the lady who owned the piano was not around to show it to me, so I was feeling slightly disappointed and disillusioned – in Vienna at a loose end! Alexander looked on the internet and he found that Brahms’ own Streicher piano had been restored by Gert Hecher. So he phoned Gert, and asked if we could see his pianos. We met him and he’s got the most significant collection of Austro-German pianos in the world. He has three large ground floor rooms full of pianos and further showrooms on his first floor too. And he lives with them. He has a separate workshop where they are all taken apart and restored. He’s passionate about these instruments and does a fantastic job of restoring them to playing condition, and that includes taking the pitch to A440. Which is the most practical thing when dealing with chamber music in the modern world.
Gert’s collection is pretty extraordinary. He’s got seven Streicher pianos, and they are all so different. He’s got Streichers that are quite bright and would be used perhaps for recording Liszt. And then he’s got this particular Streicher (pictured to the left), an unusual one within his collection, which is more mellow and seems to be quintessentially ‘Brahmsian’. And ironically enough, that piano is the exact same model as the one that Brahms had, which has been restored for the museum. This Streicher is in fantastic working condition and it’s what we used for the recording of the G minor quartet. This piano was apparently very similar to the one that Brahms had. Brahms only had it because he was given it for free! We know that he loved Blüthner and he had a Graf from the Schumann family. We also know that he loved the bigger pianos such as those made by Ehrbar.
With Ehrbar, what’s nice here, is that we recorded in the hall of the manufacturer, similar to the Wigmore Hall (which was once Bechstein Hall). It’s now linked to a conservatoire and they don’t have an Ehrbar piano there at all. We were able to take a piano which would have been in this hall at some point, from Gert’s private collection, back to the hall, and this was a lovely thing to do.
The last piano was an early Blüthner (pictured to the right), which was classic for Brahms. Actually, it’s slightly classic for our connection to Brahms. We have a festival in Hampshire and we stay with Penny Clive, whose husband owned an 1890s Blüthner; one which Brahms chose for a family member. We use that regularly, and of course we know that Brahms actually played this piano because he chose it!
MS: Why did you select these particular instruments for your recordings?
JT: This is a tricky question to answer! One consideration was how to use the piano which is the closest to the modern piano which is definitely the Ehrbar (pictured below). We wanted to record the later of the piano quartets on this piano (the Op. 60). But the irony there is that this was the first piece to have been drafted of the three quartets. It was finally published in the 1870s and the piano is also from the 1870s too. In one sense the pianos go with the timeline of the writing of the pieces. But then beyond that it was quite difficult to decide.
We’ve got the Ehrbar for the Op. 60. That made sense on lots of counts. And then the question was what to do with the other two. The Blüthner isn’t really like one’s modern idea of a Blüthner sound. It’s very bell-like and very pure. It’s straight-strung which gives a greater resonance, and it does also have a visceral brilliance. The A major is such a big piece and it needs a range of sound, but also, the Blüthner has a really beautiful singing sound which I thought would be lovely for the second movement of the A major. However, it could have worked to use the Blüthner for the G minor quartet which has such extrovert qualities, and I think some might say that the mellow Streicher struggles to keep up with the strings in the early movements of the G minor. The pay off in doing what we did is that the Streicher seems to bring something very special to the finale of the G minor quartet. This movement has cimbalom writing and although it’s not a powerful instrument, it somehow does conjure up that gypsy world of Hungarian folk music perfectly. It’s perhaps the only recording of this iconic movement where one can imagine being in a Viennese café (a number of which we enjoyed frequenting after sessions!).
MS: How did you prepare for the recording in terms of becoming accustomed to the different actions?
JT: I’d gone out to Vienna, before the recording sessions, to choose the pianos so that I wasn’t going to face any surprises. That was an interesting process. As I’d mentioned before, Gert had three or four enormous showrooms of pianos and he had been trying to steer me towards his less favoured pianos! Or the ones that had sometimes been neglected.
There was a Swiss manufacturer that I’d never heard of before, and various other pianos there. I can see in retrospect that he wanted more of his collection to be heard – in fact he was very honest about it over dinner! Some of the pianos we used have been recorded previously many times. Some of them would have been much harder work to adjust to. I realised that when I did a previous recording with Gert (of Brahms ‘cello sonatas with Alexander Baillie), we chose the Ehrbar, which is also used on this Brahms recording. But when we arrived to make the recording, there was a different Ehrbar prepared for us to use. The earlier Ehrbar, which we used for the Brahms F major ‘cello sonata, had an incredibly heavy Viennese action which was very tough, especially in that piece. That was all part of Gert getting some of his less favoured pianos their moment in the limelight!
However, I did stick to my guns about the pianos which I thought would be best for our quartet recording. So there wasn’t really anything crazy or any super strange actions. I felt that I’d be OK adjusting. It was quite a big ask as we only had three recording days. So at the beginning of each day we had to change the piano, reestablish the balance, which all takes a while, and then do the piece. And we also had a ‘kick-out time’, which was convenient for getting to our favourite Serbian restaurant on time! But it did mean that we had to be very focused during the day.
MS: How did you adjust to the pedalling and how does it differ from that on modern instruments?
JT: As the sound is slightly less sustained, you can pedal more. Although I don’t think I really did pedal that much more. There was something interesting in the editions which related to pedalling. We did various things to prepare for the recording, one of which was a major symposium of academic experts here in Birmingham at the conservatoire. And another was that we did some workshopping with amateur adults at the Benslow Music Trust.
We handed out some older editions of the quartets and one of the adult players at the workshop asked why I didn’t do a particular pedal marking in her score. At the beginning of the C minor quartet, where the strings enter, I wasn’t supposed to come off (according to this score), I should have kept the pedal depressed for another two bars. She was absolutely right! This was an edition by Hans Gal, which he made in Vienna before he came to Britain, and which is supposed to have been based on all sorts of sources and also on knowledge of musicians playing the repertoire going back to Brahms’ lifetime. Who knows? It may have been a look back to an authentic performing tradition, and it does make sense in some ways. There’s an octave C which you depress and then a diminuendo marking has been written, and you can’t get much diminuendo done in a single bar. But if you keep the sustaining pedal depressed when the strings come in, then you can get a diminuendo. As soon as this was brought to our attention, we thought we should add this to our performance.
MS: I enjoyed your dynamic ranges very much. Is this more challenging on period instruments?
JT: Some technical aspects are a little bit more difficult because most of the pianos have a single escapement rather than a double escapement. So we notice that in trills and other elements. But these instruments have been so carefully made and restored by Gert, that generally I find them a complete joy to play. I am a big fan of the modern Steinway (I own them and have bought many of them), and I love them. But I’m also a big fan of all these other instruments, most of whose makers disappeared a long time ago.
I love it when I find a piano with a personality. Not all pianists do. Some prefer a blank canvas so that they can bring their own personality to the instrument. I respect that. But I like to find a piano with a personality and then you can experiment and find things that work well on particular instruments. Perhaps it’s because I am a chamber musician, and I enjoy the whole process of collaboration. In one sense, one is collaborating with these three very different pianos. I find this more inspiring. We had a technician on hand all the time, which was necessary with such instruments, but they were so beautifully set-up that there were very few issues.
MS: What about the Urtext editions?
JT: I recently did the Brahms ‘cello sonata with Christoph Richter and he showed me the manuscript of the end of the finale. Just before the final Vivace, there’s a section where it seems right to just stretch in a meno mosso fashion for a couple of bars, but it’s actually written ritardando. But on the manuscript it says poco sostenuto, over the whole two bars, which is exactly how I’ve always wanted to see it. And then, for whatever reason, Brahms had crossed that out, and later put in the ritardando. So, if you have a strong feeling for how a passage should go, you never know, it might have been the first thought of the composer, as in this case.
In any case, we know that, as Brahms said himself, ‘if you don’t have a feeling for my music, or an understanding for the style, then don’t bother playing it’. It seems, from everything we know, there was a lot of freedom in the interpretation, and that’s the way he conducted, and the way you hear the older generation conductors, such as (Willem) Mengelberg. You can hear all this on Youtube now. It’s not so strange for a modern player, if you’ve been heading in a slightly freer direction anyway. This reinforced my notion of freeing myself up and not being too high bound by what’s in the score.
In the case of the finale of the G minor quartet, there are some places where the Henle edition has put in some obvious suggestions, where the same passage might be played at the same tempo, but actually it’s more fun not to! And when you see the older editions where it’s not so consistent, it inspires you to do something a bit more creative.
MS: Tell us about your forthcoming performances. Where can we hear you play these quartets?
JT: We are going up to Scotland in the Autumn to play them all. And we have our own festival now. It’s been going a while and is in a village called West Meon, and it came out of the connection to the Brahms Blüthner piano and the Clive family. It’s really blossomed and it’s very gratifying how a large number of people have put much time and energy into it, and we are able to invite exciting guests now. Michael Collins has been a couple of time, and we are having Simon Callow this time. He will perform Strauss’ Enoch Arden with me.
MS: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat to me about this fascinating project, and I wish you every success with the new recording.
JT: Thank you, Melanie.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.