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Monday, October 26, 2009

Some Hasty Brahms

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

String Quartet No. 1 in c minor, Op. 51, No. 1 [34:33]

Piano Quintet in f minor, Op. 34 [43:21]

Quatour Ébène

Pierre Colombet (violin)

Gabriel Le Magadure (violin)

Mathieu Herzog (viola)

Raphaël Merlin (cello)

Akiko Yamamoto (piano)

Recorded at Ferme de villefavard en Limousin, France on 5-8 May 2008 (Quartet), and Fondation Singer-Polignac, Paris, 1-3 October, 2007 (Quintet).

VIRGIN CLASSICS 50999 216622 2 S [78:42]

Brahms’ Piano Quintet, which was published in 1865, saw several incarnations before taking on its masterful final form. It began life as string quintet with two cellos, modeled after Schubert’s famous example in C major. Neither Clara Schumann nor Joseph Joachim found much good to say about this initial effort. Brahms later cast the work as a sonata for two pianos, which pleased him, but was still met with a cold shoulder from his mentors. The conductor Hermann Levi encouraged Brahms to visit the composition a third time and in the summer of 1864, he finally created what was to be one of his finest examples of chamber music. The work was immediately declared a masterpiece by Clara, Joachim and Levi.

The stormy opening is full of sweeping gestures, thunderous episodes and complex rhythms. The Quatour Ébène and Akiko Yamamoto tear into the music with youthful abandon, and although their playing is of the highest technical order, I found the tempi to be rushed and breathless, leaving little room to express Brahms’ sweeping lines and seldom allowing phrases to settle before the next one is begun. Things go better in the slow movement where the music is allowed to breathe more and there is elegance in the turns of phrase. The Scherzo and trio hops along at good pace and the finale is performed with confidence and power in spite of the tendency to again rush a bit. Overall balance is fine and there is good give and take between the players, each allowing the other a moment in the sun where needed.

The same observations can be made of the String Quartet, a work that caused Brahms a bit of apprehension given the shadow of his predecessors Brahms and Schubert and their supreme achievements in the genre. Again, the ensemble seems too often to be on the verge of a loss of control where tempos are concerned. Too often I heard unseated phrases, gestures that were not given enough time to breathe and come to completion before the next idea was barreled into. Things were better in the slow movements, and it is evident that this group can play with a sense of lyricism when it has a mind to. It would have been nice to have heard a little more self-control in the outer movements though instead of just pure virtuosity for its own sake.

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