Brahms's Piano Quintet
This piece had a long and complicated gestation. It started life as a string quintet, was then re-worked for two pianos (a version occasionally recorded) and finally combined strings and piano into a quintet. It's a large-scale work of great power that's been very lucky on disc.
Coupled with Schumann: Piano Quintet in E flat, Op 44
Leif Ove Andsnes (pf) Artemis Quartet
Virgin Classics 395143-2 (69’ · DDD). Gramophone Chamber Award 2006. Buy from Amazon
Leif Ove Andsnes has an uncanny knack of revealing the inner truth of the music he plays without recourse to excessive gimmickry. He also has exquisite taste when it comes to choosing his chamber music collaborators, as this pairing of the two cornerstones of the piano quintet repertoire demonstrates.
Schumann’s Quintet has become the most famous of his chamber works, with its boundless energy and melodic generosity. Andsnes and the Artemis let the notes speak for themselves, never lingering too lovingly on mere details. It’s an approach that serves the work well, and an ideal instrumental balance helps illuminate the work’s compelling textures throughout.
It’s a similar story in the Brahms. Andsnes and the Artemis are alive to all the possibilities in the pregnant opening phrases of each movement and maintain the intensity of the impetuous passion implicit in this youthful music. The Brahms hasn’t fared as well on disc as the Schumann and this recording of it can certainly take its place among the finest. As for the Schumann, it’s undoubtedly up there with the best.
Piano Quintet*. String Quartet No 2, Op 51 No 2
*Stephen Hough (pf) Takács Quartet
Hyperion CDA67551 (73’ · DDD)
In the Brahms Second Quartet the Takács find a most appealing lightness of touch. They reveal anew the extraordinarily imaginative way in which the work begins, and breathe air into the intricate textures which precede the vacillating second theme. There’s an absolute unanimity to their playing, but a fetching liveliness too. Compared to such groups as the Alban Berg (EMI), who revel in the lushness of Brahms’s writing, the Takács are more febrile and transparent. Their third movement creeps in, skittering, but there’s no lack of sweetness of tone when required. And the fugal section has a spring in its step. Brahms isn’t all seriousness, they remind us.
The other major selling-point of this disc is the Piano Quintet, for which the Takács are joined by Stephen Hough. There’s nothing cosy about this latest reading, which has fire and passion aplenty, and the recording places Hough pleasingly within the overall texture rather than unduly spotlighting him. There’s a feeling of coming together of ideas, with these artists – masters of colour all of them – sparking off one another in a very unstudio-ish way. And throughout, Hough’s virtuosity makes light of Brahms’s unforgiving textures.
Coupled with Schubert: Piano Quintet in A, D667, ‘Trout’**
Sir Clifford Curzon (pf) Amadeus Quartet with **James Edward Merrett (db)
BBC Legends BBCL4009-2 (81‘ · ADD). Recorded live **1971, *1974
The 1971 recording of the Schubert sounds marginally better than the 1974 Brahms, but the visceral excitement generated by the Brahms Quintet has to be heard to be believed. It would be fairly easy to imagine a tidier performance, but not one that’s more spontaneous or inspired. Sir Clifford Curzon’s grand vision registers within a few bars of the opening movement and heats to near boiling-point by the start of the recapitulation. The emotional temperature rises even higher for the second movement.
The distinction of the performance resides in the co-operation of all five players, which reaches unprecedented heights in the finale. No wonder the audience explodes: it’s doubtful that anyone present has heard a finer performance since. The Trout’s repeated exposition is even more exciting than its first statement, and there’s some gentle tempo acceleration during the development. True, the strings make a fractionally late entrance at the beginning of the Andante, but the vitality of the Scherzo would be hard to beat, while the Theme and Variations features notable playing from Lovett. There’s an amusing spot of premature congratulation when applause momentarily breaks in at the end of the Allegro giusto’s exposition, but it soon withers to silence for a joyous finale. Here the recording rather favours the strings, but better that than have the piano drown everyone else out. Wonderful stuff, all of it.
Andreas Staier (pf) Leipzig Quartet
Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG307 1218-2 (39’ · DDD)
Here’s something quite unusual! Andreas Staier is playing a Steinway Model D dating from 1901; not exactly contemporary with the Quintet (1865), but producing a noticeably lighter sound than its modern counterpart, and taking us closer to what would have been familiar to Brahms.
On this excellent recording we’re aware that the dominating resonance of the present-day concert grand is missing; the balance shifts in favour of the strings, making the work seem more colourful, less sombre. The first movement and the Scherzo are especially successful, with full, resonant tuttis contrasting dramatically with the more tenuous, atmospheric music. The Leipzig Quartet maintain a notably pure sound, without excessive vibrato, adding to the feeling of transparency.
Other performers have delved more searchingly into the Quintet’s emotional content, bringing out the moments of deep pathos or soaring lyricism. But Staier and the Leipzigers will expand your view of this great work.