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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet in C minor Op. 51 No. 1 (c.1868-73)
String Quintet in G major Op. 111 (1890)
Belcea Quartet
Thomas Kakuska (second viola on Op. 111)
Recorded: Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK (Op. 51/1, July 2003); (Op.111, September 2003) DDD
EMI CLASSICS 5 57661 2 [62:19]

With these performances the exciting Belcea Quartet under the leadership of Corina Belcea place themselves on an equal level with the finest ensembles in Europe. I have observed their progress for some time, both in the recital hall as well as in the recording studio. On the evidence of this release the Belceas go from strength to strength and have attained a full maturity.

The first work is the four movement String Quartet Op. 51 No. 1. It is not known exactly when the work was composed. Perhaps Brahms was exaggerating when he stated that he had composed and destroyed twenty other string quartets prior to the publication of this one. Described as a ‘masterwork’ by many critics Brahms uses economy, structural mastery and an integration rarely encountered in his early chamber scores. The talented Belceas play with an enviable style and a natural warmth. The listener is held in their spell throughout the heart-searching of the score’s solemnity and passion. My main recommendation for this work however is contained on the complete set of the three String Quartets together with the Piano Quintet Op.34 from the Borodin Quartet on Teldec Ultima 8573-87802-2. This is an amazing bargain at super budget price and performed by the Borodins with marvellous precision.

Composed in Bad Ischl in 1890 when the composer was fifty seven, Brahms intended the four movement String Quintet, Op. 111 to be his last chamber work. It has been said that naturalness, harmonious effect and joy immediately come to mind as attributes of this work. One contemporary of Brahms even heard "the cheerful, relaxed atmosphere of the Vienna Prater". The composer could only confirm this impression, "Isn't it so! And the many pretty girls in it!" The Belceas, augmented by Thomas Kakuska on second viola, thoroughly enter into the spirit of the proceedings. The players succeed in expressing the work’s youthful exuberance, its considerable vigour and optimism. The playing is of such a high-calibre that in spite of fierce competition this is now my preferred version.

These are excellent performances from the Belceas and the release is eminently collectable.

Michael Cookson

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