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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quintet No.1 in F, op.88 (1859) [26:33] 
String Quintet No.2 in G, op.111 (1864) [29:04] 
  The Nash Ensemble; Philip Dukes (viola)
rec. Great Hall, City of London’s Boy’s School, London, 7, 20, 21 December 2008. DDD. 
  ONYX 4043 [55:40]

Experience Classicsonline

The Nash Ensemble continues their Brahms Survey on Onyx, after having already regaled us with the String Sextets and two Piano Quartets. Aided by a very present recorded sound, their bold excursions into some of Brahms’ most striking, but hardly most popular music - the two String Sextets opp.88 and 111 - are highly successful, perfectly pleasing additions to the generously filled catalog. But waiting for them, comparison wise, are, among others, the Raphael Ensemble’s seamlessly well played recordings. Along with recordings by the Hagen Quartet with Gérard Caussé (DG) and Leipzig String Quartet+ (MDG), those are at the top of my heap (MusicWeb International review here). They are glorious, with total precision, and most importantly: with lots of heart. The Guarneri Quartet with Zukerman - an on-demand re-release that stems from close cooperation between ArkivMusic and Sony/RCA - is a new, old contender as well.

What the Nash Ensemble has that these others don’t, is a brazen approach to the music. While they offer op.88 with emboldened forward drive, the Raphael Ensemble’s approach is one of slightly greater refinement and sensitive elasticity. The Nash are also consistently, if marginally, faster than the Raphael Ensemble. In the opening movements of both quintets, the Nash-approach works very well. But in the op.88 Grave ed appassionato they introduce an unnecessarily hectic sense. In the op.111 Adagio the delicate balance and the more refined violins make the Raphael Ensemble a more pleasant listen. Explosive and restless as the Nash is, theirs is an ostentatious approach the Raphael does not choose … and yet the latter manage to be just as fiery in the closing movements. Direct comparison thus takes a little off this new recording’s edge. Then again, that’s not how one would ordinarily listen to these works. Their strong impression on its own immediately carries enough appeal to compel return to this interpretation. The acoustic is rich and with generous - not excessive - reverberation.

Jens F. Laurson 

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