BRAHMS Complete Piano Trios and Quartets
The Gould Piano Trio recorded Brahms’s piano trios between 2004 and 2007, beginning with the three published works, then adding the Horn and Clarinet Trios, the posthumously published A major Trio (attributed to Brahms) and the original version of Op 8. All were made in the Music Room at Champs Hill in West Sussex for release on the Quartz label, and warmly reviewed in these pages. In 2009 Quartz bundled them all up in a box (QTZ2067), and now they’re being reissued yet again by Champs Hill Records, coupled with brand-new recordings of the piano quartets and Theodor Kirchner’s trio arrangements of the string sextets.
The older recordings deserve to retain a place in the catalogue. There are more viscerally exciting and daringly imaginative versions available, certainly, but the Gould are unfailingly musical, and whatever their performances may lack in dazzle and pyrotechnics is made up for in lyrical intensity. Some of the performances really catch fire. The first movement of Op 101 maintains a white-knuckle grip without any sacrifice in emotional warmth, and both the Clarinet and Horn Trios are passionately played. In general, however, the Gould go for the slow burn, giving thoughtful, patient interpretations that allow them the space to excavate rich details of articulation and tone colour.
These new recordings of the piano quartets, with viola player David Adams, adhere to the same musical values and are even more introspective than their predecessors. There’s hardly a trace of virtuoso extravagance or muscle-flexing, particularly in the popular G minor Quartet, where other ensembles put on quite a show – try Argerich, Kremer, Bashmet and Maisky (DG, 4/04). Tempos are leisurely throughout and the musicians dig deeply into their lines, drawing out an attractively rich, dark sound. Yet there’s marvellous clarity, too, even in thick passages, so that one can, say, feel the subtle tension when Brahms overlays rhythms of duplets and triplets, as at 5'11" in the opening Allegro. Occasionally the pace seems a little too relaxed. Surely, for example, the syncopated viola line at 6'22" is meant to suggest greater agitation than it does here. The Andante con moto moves sluggishly, not so much because of the slowish tempo but rather because of a dogged emphasis on the moving quavers. And the final Rondo alla zingarese is still more disappointing. Its gypsy flavour doesn’t have to be laid on thick but the Gould’s version is seriously under-seasoned.
The A major Quartet is more successful. Listen to the glorious sequence at 8'33" in the first movement for a shining example of the Gould at their absolute best – intensely expressive, with glistening tone that yields exquisite clarity. Again, there are moments of insufficient energy or drive, as at 10'01", where there’s no acknowledgement of Brahms’s appassionato marking. But the Poco adagio is ravishing in its poise and tender feeling; the main theme seems to float along, despite the intricate figuration. And if the finale is not quite rollicking, at least there’s snap to the rhythms and a sense of fun.
The highlight of this set is the C minor Quartet, which is given a reading of orchestral weight and authority. The Gould don’t jump on the Scherzo’s syncopations as others do, and they keep the long chains of quavers in the finale from racing away. In fact, they hold all the tempos on an extremely tight rein, producing a feeling not just of firmness but of granitic resolve. One comes away from the performance with the impression that this may be Brahms’s darkest work – more tragic even than the Tragic Overture.
What a pleasure, then, to move back into the sunlight with the two string sextets, skilfully arranged for trio by Brahms’s friend Theodor Kirchner, and especially in such warmly affectionate performances. Tempos all seem spot-on here, and every phrase is imbued with character and charm.