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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op.44 (1842)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet No.2 in A major, Op.26 (1862)
Clifford Curzon (piano)
The Budapest Quartet
Recorded in the Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress, Washington USA, 28-29 April 1951 (Schumann) and 27-28 April 1952 (Brahms) ADD (mono)
NAXOS 8.110306 [77’03]



This is the first of two discs that will celebrate Clifford Curzon’s chamber partnership with the Budapest Quartet. It’s very well filled and contains two of the finest works of their type.

I have to agree with note writer Tully Potter’s assertion that ‘Robert Schumann never wrote anything better than his Piano Quintet, one of the most perfect creations in Western music’. This glorious work is so full of life-affirming ebullience and joy that it takes a pretty rotten performance to ruin it. Curzon and his partners are certainly alive to the boldness and muscularity of the first movement, but I have heard performances that capture a greater sense of sheer fun and brilliance. Curzon is often referred to by critics (including Potter) as an ‘aristocrat’ of the keyboard. This is certainly true, and it makes certain areas of this piece more successful than others. I do like their way with the second movement funeral march and the strongly delineated lines of the finale, particularly their lead back to the work’s opening theme, but I would have liked a touch more abandon in the molto vivace scherzo.

Perhaps it’s this slightly more serious, or should I say concentrated, approach that suits the Brahms better, at least to my ears. For a chamber work, this is a piece of epic proportions, lasting over 46 minutes. Having said that, it is the most gentle of the three piano quartets, possibly written, as Potter suggests, as ‘a lyrical, feminine answer to the dramatic, masculine G minor’. Whatever the case, there is a lovely warmth to the strings and a richness to Curzon’s tone that are hard to resist. You may find a greater unanimity of ensemble is some of today’s super-charged virtuoso groups, but there is a real feeling here of spontaneity and depth of expression. They wisely leave out the first movement exposition repeat, which gives better balance to the structure. Curzon is on particularly fine form throughout, revelling in the thundering octaves at the start of the scherzo’s trio section, and the ensemble as a whole seem very much at home in the Hungarian accents of the finale.

The Library of Congress acoustic is referred to in the sleeve note as ’boxy’, but the Naxos transfer seems successful, and the sound quality is very easy to adjust to. There are many outstanding versions of the Schumann Quintet in the catalogue, both old (I think of Rubinstein and the Guarneri) and modern (Naxos’s own Jando and the Kodaly, as vivacious an account as you could wish for). There is less competition in the Brahms, so if you are an admirer of these artists, you need not hesitate.

Tony Haywood


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