Ames Piano Quartet (1991)
Rarely performed, this unusual early work shows Strauss' ardent, though fleeting, zeal for the music of Brahms. It takes brains and technique (genius aside) to be Brahms, and in this work, the young Strauss takes a giant stride beyond his previous Schumannesque adventures in sonata form. Yet this is not really a student work, but one of Strauss' most successful chamber pieces, in many ways more substantial than the more popular cello sonata, and it has even stirred minor controversy. Almost every commentator regards the opening movement as first-rate. However, Del Mar, for example, picks at the second subject of the scherzo and finds the slow movement full of cliches.
The Ames Piano Quartet argues convincingly that you are listening to one of the great works in the quartet literature. They play superbly, of course, but, more than that, they get inside the music: a powerful first movement, a scherzo bubbling with fantastic, mordant wit, a slow movement that treads the line of genuine sentiment without stepping over into sentimentality. These three movements make you regret Strauss did not take the Brahmsian path a little longer. Shortly after completion, he switched allegiance to Wagner and Liszt and began the journey to Don Juan.
In the fourth movement, however, the work simply falls apart, and not even the Ames can put it together again. Strauss reverts to a Schumann sonata rondo, but has difficulty finding stimulating musical ideas. The argument doesn't go anywhere, and the effect is of the composer trying one thing after another to bring the movement to life. Nevertheless, the previous three movements suffice to call forth many "what ifs."
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