Brahms Piano Quintet No 1; String Quartet No 1
The Ebène Quartet deservedly won the chamber category in this year’s Gramophone Awards with their disc of Debussy, Fauré and Ravel (which was also voted Recording of the Year). They follow up that success with Brahms, immediately coming into competition with another Award-winner from label-mates Leif Ove Andsnes and the Artemis Quartet. While one felt they were completely “inside” the French repertoire, immersed in the Gallic perfume of those three rarefied but contrasting works, their engagement with Brahms does not on first acquaintance seem so penetrating. Whereas Andsnes and the Artemis launch themselves into the heart of Brahms’s impetuous youthful turmoil, the Ebène and pianist Akiko Yamamoto seem to inhabit it from the outside. Stephen Hough and the Takács Quartet’s recent recording of the work is also a fully integrated, lively reading. Either of these two comparisons would stand as an ideal benchmark for the Piano Quintet.
The Takács Quartet also offer a rival recording of the C minor String Quartet (their Hyperion remake, which follows almost two decades after their first recording for Decca, 9/90R). While both the Ebène and the Takács match each other for unanimity and strength of ensemble, it is consistently the Takács who pip their younger French counterparts in terms of forward thrust and far-sighted structural awareness, demonstrating a more secure sense of the work’s inexorable momentum. One feels that the French ensemble’s less febrile approach may find its true home in the playful neoclassicism of Brahms’s Third Quartet.
With regret, though, this is not a Brahms chamber music disc of choice. But when the Ebène offer their own remake of this music 20 years hence, they will surely then demonstrate why this music from Brahms’s first flush of success so richly repays exploration with the benefit of a wisdom and experience that are born of greater maturity.