Two quintets from two very different periods in Brahms’s life. The Piano Quintet is the work of a frustrated but ambitious man. The Clarinet-led piece is an autumnal serenade by an experienced master. The journey between these two milestones was one marked by criticism, soul searching and ultimate triumph. Weighed down by the inheritance Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Brahms often hibernated from public statements in the more modest realm of trios, quartets and quintets. But his symphonic ambitions soon found voice, not only in the composition of his first symphony, which he began in 1862, but also in the rich and radical landscape of his chamber music. Conviction and talent paid off and by the time we revisit Brahms in 1891, the year of the Clarinet Quintet, aggravation becomes reflection. 1862 was a crucial year. As well as starting that first symphony, the 29-year-old Brahms travelled to Vienna for the first time. There he met Wagner. Although history relates that Brahms’s conservative abstraction was at the opposite end of the musical spectrum to Wagner’s extremely theatrical music, Brahms felt nothing but admiration for his compatriot.
While in the city, Brahms performed many of his new piano and chamber works, garnering the enviable support of Eduard Hanslick, the city’s most-feared music critic. With Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim already on his side, Brahms was set to become a major figure in European music. But rather than pandering to his ego, Hanslick, Schumann and Joachim gave Brahms vital input and criticism. Such friendships fostered genius, though Brahms wasn’t always as grateful as he should have been.