Brahms qts 4776458

Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2007 and the recording is still available.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op.51, No.1 (c.1868-73)
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op.51, No.2 (c.1868-73)
String Quartet No. 3 in B flat major, Op.67 (1876)
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34 (1864)
Emerson String Quartet
Leon Fleisher (piano)
rec. 2005-07, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Deutsche Grammophon 477 6458 [2 CDs: 142]

From my experience any new release from the Emerson Quartet is cause for celebration. On this new issue they are joined by legendary American pianist Leon Fleisher. Upon receiving this Deutsche Grammophon disc for review I couldn’t wait to discover if the partnership would live up to their distinguished reputations.

The opening work is the String Quartet No. 1 a score dedicated to Brahms’ friend Dr. Theodor Billroth of Vienna. The cautious Brahms agonised over this work it is known that he had made several attempts in the genre before presenting the C minor. A common criticism levelled at the work is the disconcerting bleakness of the writing with Brahms placing too little emphasis on melody. I was interested in the viewpoint of the two biographers: Walter Frisch who described the score as, “an intense, mostly dark work” and Ivor Keys writing that, “grittiness is certainly in evidence.”

In the extended first movement Allegro the Emersons provide serious and robust playing contrasted with episodes of great tenderness. The fractious quality and relative gloom of the Allegro is dispelled with the warm lyricism of the Romanze here interpreted with intensity and deep concentration. I enjoyed the moderately paced third movement interpreted with a strong sense of spontaneity. The agitated quality of the music is always present in a movement fuses the martial with the whimsical. The Allegrofinale contains unsettling music with undertones of hurt and anger that the Emersons perform with a convincing degree of drama.

The String Quartet No. 2 is a dense, yet appealing score that places considerable emphasis on shifting moods. Composed around the same time as its predecessor this score again bears a dedication Dr. Billroth. In the extended and rather technical opening Allegro the Emersons expertly bring out a bitter-sweet quality. With controlled playing of the highest quality one feels an underlying pain and anguish in the sombre slow movement and by contrast the relatively short Menuetto alternates brooding lyricism with passages of impressive vigour. In the finale the Emersons are compelling in the two contrasting dance themes, one akin to an Hungarian stomp and the second lighter and more gentle in the style of a Viennese waltz.

Brahms wrote his String Quartet No. 3 in 1876 and dedicated it to his friend Professor Theodor Wilhelm Engelmann from the University of Utrecht. It is a good-humoured score that makes a marked contrast to the two earlier quartets. Frisch referred to it as, “neoclassical in spirit, but ultra-sophisticated in its triumph.”

The Emersons are in buoyant mood in this generally agreeable opening movement, marked Vivace permeated with typical Brahmsian moodiness and occasional petulance. One cannot help but be impressed with the level of serenity the Emersons disclose in the Andante, “a song without words.” One becomes particularly aware of the movement’s concluding Amen. Lawrence Dutton’s viola part takes centre-stage in the disconcerting third movement Allegretto where the interpretation emphasises the anxiety of emotional stormy waters. A calm conclusion at 6:58 provides welcome respite. The finale is a theme and variations in which the Emersons convincingly convey the light-hearted character of the dance. From 6:07 the players strengthen the tempo in a cheerful dash for the finishing line, rather like children scampering home from school; pausing only for the occasional breather.

These are highly satisfying performances that now sit proudly alongside the acclaimed performances from the legendary Borodin Quartet on Teldec, as my benchmark. The Borodin set shares the same programme as the Emersons and was recorded at both Snape Maltings, Suffolk in 1990 (Op. 51/1; 67) and Berlin in 1993 (Op. 51/2; 34) reissued on the Teldec ‘Ultima’ label 8573-87802-2 (c/w Brahms Piano Quintet, Op. 34 discussed below).

In the String Quartet No. 1 I can highly recommend the splendid version from the eminent Belcea Quartet for their enviable style and natural warmth. Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk in 2003 on EMI Classics 5 57661 2 (c/w String Quintet,Op. 111).

The final work on the set is Brahms’s Piano Quintet. This is a greatly esteemed work, a staple of the standard repertoire and according to musicologist David Ewen, “one of the supreme achievements of chamber music.” Although many chamber music lovers will know this delightful and popular Quintet few will know its convoluted history as it began life as the String Quintet in F minor. Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim pointed out deficiencies in the manuscript of the String Quintet and a doubtless disenchanted and demoralised Brahms abandoned the score stating, “it will be better if it goes to sleep.” He reworked the material (1863-64) into a Sonata in F minor for two pianos that was published in 1871 as his Op. 34b. With the urging of Clara Schumann, Brahms returned to the music in 1864 to create his third and final version for Piano Quintet in F minor,Op. 34 that he dedicated to Princess Anna of Hesse. 

In the Piano Quintet the Emersons are here joined by pianist Leon Fleisher, however I found their collaboration to be generally disappointing. Who can forget Fleisher’s performances of Brahms’s two Piano Concertos with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under George Szell – recorded in Cleveland’s Severance Hall in 1958 and 1962 respectively. My copy of the digitally remastered recordings is on Sony Classical ‘Masterworks Heritage’ MH2K 63225. Evidently it is only in recent years that Fleisher has returned to performing two-hand repertoire as from the mid nineteen-sixties he experienced the debilitating neurological disorder of focal dystonia in his right hand.

The mighty and substantial opening Allegro non troppo possesses a serious character to which the Emersons and Fleisher contribute just the right amount of tension. They are not afraid to slow right down and adopt speeds that seem far slower than one is familiar with from the Borodins and Elizo Virzaladze on Teldec or the Leipzig Quartet with Andreas Staier on MDG. The slow movement is a stark contrast – a typical Brahmsian blend of bitter-sweet. I loved the way the players infuse an appealing Schubertian character to the melodies. The working of three contrasting themes marks the invigorating Scherzo movement. I was struck by how much the Emersons vary their tempi and accentuate the wide dynamics, and at the same time was saddened by Fleisher’s lacklustre playing. In the complex and unrelenting final movement Brahms writes for a wide range of chaotic emotions with a headlong dash to the wire. Here the rather leaden approach adopted by the pianist seems to rub off on the string players leaving one to almost scream for more vigour and vivacity.

For alternative recordings of the Piano Quintet I wholeheartedly recommend the outstanding Naxos account from the Kodály with Jenö Jandó. The legendary Jandó is now the most recorded pianist in the history of classical music. Their outstanding playing is consistently inspired and particularly magnificent in the second movement Andante. Recorded in 1990 at the Italian Institute in Budapest on Naxos 8.550406 the disc has the great advantage of being coupled with an equally uplifting and enjoyable account of Schumann’s Piano Quintet.

The Borodins are joined in the Piano Quintet by Virsaladze for a sparkling and exceptional performance that was recorded in Berlin in 1993 now on Teldec ‘Ultima’ 8573-87802-2 (c/w Brahms String Quartets 1-3 discussed above). Some may have slight reservations over the balance of the forward-placed piano in the forte passages.

To summarise, this DG recording has a clear and dry sound quality, however, the playing would have benefited from some bloom. At various points I can detect what sounds like slight echoes making me wonder if studio reverb has been added to provide depth to the sound-picture. It would not be the first time that the recording engineer used by the Emersons has engaged in sonic creativity. Walter Frisch’s essay is easy to read providing most of the essential information. The booklet contains three rare and interesting photographs of Brahms, pictured whilst out on a walk with friends in Bad Honnef, taken in 1896 the year before his death.

These performances of the Quartets rank alongside the finest in the catalogue and should delight Brahms lovers. Although getting off to a reasonable enough start their interpretation of the Quintet with Fleisher is far less convincing and I would look elsewhere for an alternative version.

Michael Cookson

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