Johannes Brahms was one of Arnold Schoenberg’s main examples. He dedicated several writings to the composer, taught his students the elderly maestro’s compositional techniques and in 1937 he transcribed for symphony orchestra Brahms’s G-minor Piano Quartet (1861). When asked, just before the premiere, why he had chosen this particular work and what he had in mind when transcribing it, he replied, ‘My reasons: 1. I like this piece. 2. It is seldom played. 3. It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved. My intentions: 1. To remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not to go father than he himself would have gone if he lived today. 2. To watch carefully all these laws which Brahms obeyed […].’
Schoenberg changed nothing in the music of the great German master, and the performance apparatus roughly corresponds to a Brahmsian orchestra. The translucent orchestration allows for every part and every small detail to be heard, and consequently the sonority is perplexingly evocative of Brahms’s symphonies. The listener experiences a curious illusion of hearing a symphony where there is in fact no symphony, as if he or she were hearing Brahms, but it is in fact not Brahms, since there is no real passage between the different musical eras. If Brahms had wanted to compose a symphony, obviously he would have conceived a completely different work in terms of music and form. The transcription is no more and no less than what the composer intended: a compositional bravura and a curiosity to the audiences of today.