Brahms: Chamber Works
Let's take the Naxos CD first. It begins with the Schumann Quintet, and Jeno Jando and the Kodaly Quartet give it a performance that is both robust and warm, balancing strength and forward-moving energy with expressive force. This is likeable playing, and the slight sternness of the march-like second movement is realized without exaggeration, as is the songfulness of its middle section. In the powerfully agile passages of the scherzo and finale, the artists are less refined than Peter Frankl and the Lindsay Quartet (ASV), but remain satisfying. They give the Brahms Quintet both passion and mystery, and their playing seems still more polished technically than in the Schumann (although in the second movement violin intonation falters a trifle), while the texture and string sound seem rather clearer too. Though neither the Hungarian artists nor their rivals on ASV bring out the quietly Schubertian warmth of the slow movement as well as Ashkenazy and the Cleveland Orchestra Quartet on Decca (indeed, both the Naxos and ASV performances take a somewhat sombre view of the work as a whole), the interpretation here is convincing in its own terms, and the scherzo and finale have plenty of dark fire. Frankl and the Lindsay Quartet offer a more spacious first movement, but the Hungarians are convincing too in their greater urgency. However, their performance does not have the lengthy exposition repeat which is played, I think rightly, by Frankl and the Lindsay and also by Ashkenazy and the Cleveland Orchestra Quartet and which gives this Allegro non troppo a length of around 15 minutes.
The Naxos recording of these two big works is not quite as good as the performances, the tone of the strings being a little plummy in the Schumann and that of the piano heavyish, while the dynamic range could be greater and the Budapest location strikes me as rather too reverberant. But it is perfectly serviceable and will not stand in the way of the music unless you have an ultra-critical ear, so that although the alternative Frankl/Lindsay version is better from this point of view and expertly played, a strong recommendation should not be denied to this new CD at its super-bargain price.
The Decca performance of the Brahms Quintet by Ashkenazy and his American colleagues glows with rich colour throughout, partly because of the mellow interpretation but also because of the sweetness of the string tone; the recording in the Cleveland Masonic Auditorium seems to me well judged, too, and though a bit more distance might have given it still more atmosphere I found it most pleasing. The tonal subtlety of the playing may be judged at once in the hushed opening of the first movement, which is beautifully done, and another wholly different but equally effective kind of soft playing, full of tension, is to be heard at the start of the scherzo. Furthermore, the kind of masterly yet warm-hearted authority which Ashkenazy brings to the chordal opening of the trio section of this same movement (at 3' 03'') lends the performance a special distinction. He and the Cleveland are also splendidly eloquent in the strange and somewhat elusive Poco sostenuto introduction to the finale, and what follows doesn't disappoint either; indeed, the high expectations which these artists have probably generated in a listener at the beginning of the whole Quintet are unlikely to be disappointed. It's worth adding, of course, that the warmth of the playing doesn't imply any lack of strength—in fact there are ample thrills and fine outpourings of power and it seems to me that the dramatic unfolding of this big work is admirably judged.
I have not yet mentioned the Clarinet Trio which opens the programme on this Decca issue, in which the clarinettist is the thoughtful Franklin Cohen. It's a late work which Brahms composed for the clarinettist Richard Muhlfeld in the same year as his better known and wonderfully autumnal Clarinet Quintet. This is minor-mode music in which melancholy seems never far away, but at the same time, as one of the composer's friends remarked, it is also ''as if the instruments were in love with each other''. Incidentally, although there are four movements there is no scherzo, and the Adagio second movement is followed by an Andante grazioso. This is another stylish performance, and the issue is thus a most desirable one, well worth its full price.'