These Brilliant Classics box set compilations really
do appear to be going from strength to strength. Although I was less
than taken with the Saint-Saens piano concerto set I reviewed a while
ago (mainly on the grounds of dated sound quality and poor orchestral
playing), I enjoyed greatly a set of Rachmaninov concertos, albeit with
no documentation whatsoever. Things appear to have improved greatly
since then, and I have noticed in these columns excellent reviews of,
amongst others, Shostakovich Symphonies from Barshai (a real find from
what I have sampled), the complete Haydn Symphonies from Fischer, Chopin
piano music and Tchaikovsky orchestral music. This mammoth 12-disc box
of Brahmsís complete chamber music is another feather in Brilliantís
cap. A glance at the above list will tell any discerning music lover
that here are some truly world-class artists, and the performances throughout
this set are, at worst, perfectly acceptable and, at best, truly exceptional.
Comparisons are pointless here, given the box format and super-budget
price, so I will review each disc objectively in sequence.
Discs 1 and 2
The three Piano Quartets occupy the first two
discs, and are given performances of strength and measured stature.
All three works are big-boned, muscular works that (typically) belie
the seemingly slender forces they are written for. The expansive main
theme of the first movement of Quartet No.1 is a good example
of this groupís approach in all the pieces. The tempo is slower than
I have encountered before, but there is an inner drive that allows the
music to feel as if it is unfolding with unforced naturalness. The phrasing
of the celloís second subject (1.48) is exquisite, and the development
has a truly hushed quality (4.40). The veiled Intermezzo has
the right air of mystery, and I love the Ďcaféí music at 3.25
into the finale Ė listeners may remember this section being used effectively
throughout the 1989 cult French film, Monsieur Hire. The other
two quartets are just as effective, the long A major 2nd
Quartet having a marvellous blend of symphonic weight and chamber
The two String Quintets are beautifully crafted,
seductive works that have not enjoyed the sort of popularity they deserve.
These Brandis performances, which originate from Nimbus, are warmly
relaxed, responsive to the many mood shifts, but not overblown or aggressive.
They are particularly sensitive to the grave melancholy of slow movement
of the F major, where ensemble, pitch and timbre are all well
balanced. I also like their response to the wistful, gentle mood of
the Intermezzo in the G major. They are given a recording
that matches the artistic approach, being warm, fairly resonant but
set in a pleasingly realistic acoustic.
This disc of the ever-popular Clarinet Sonatas
is another licensed from Nimbus, and once again the results are first
rate. Karl Leister is a very experienced player, and his understanding
shines through every bar. The insert note reminds us of the inspirational
source for the works, specifying the "wonderful tone and expression"
as the qualities in the playing of Richard Mühlfeld (principal
clarinettist of the Meiningen Court Orchestra) that Brahms so much admired.
One feels he may have felt the same about Leister, whose tone is as
liquid as it is sensitive. He and his admirable partner, Ferenc Bognar,
respond with a loving intimacy to the musicís glowing and nostalgic
lyricism, the wonderful opening of the E flat Sonata being
a good example. There is no lack of strength where required (there is
real appassionato in the F minorís first movement) and
these performances banish all the clichés about Brahms as nothing
more than a brusque and burly academic.
This disc interestingly couples the great Clarinet
Quintet, for many Brahmsís finest chamber composition, with the
second of the three String Quartets. It also shows us (probably
unintentionally) a real contrast in stylistic approaches to Brahms playing.
The Leister/Brandis Quintet is all autumnal warmth, a gentle,
elegiac performance that sees the piece (quite validly) in a reflective
vein. Even the liveliness in the andantino third movement and
con moto finale is of a restrained nature, brighter textures
and sprung rhythms taking the place of anything more aggressive. The
Tokyo Quartet, on the other hand, take an equally valid view that Brahms
has a turbulent, tempestuous side that is often underplayed. The opening
of this A minor Quartet shows the Tokyoís vividly dramatic, fierily
impulsive approach well. It is a superbly sculpted performance, full
of dynamic contrast, as the sforzando chords at 3.08 amply show.
Technically, this group is beyond reproach; indeed, in the past they
have been criticised for being too polished at the expense of warmth
and expression, not a view I have shared.
This disc completes the String Quartet group,
and confirms everything written above. The Tokyoís blend of technical
virtuosity and ripe, red-blooded romanticism is hard to resist. The
powerful flanking movements of both works have an urgency that is very
compelling. The First Quartetís romanza second movement
has a rapt magic, and the rhythmic vitality of scherzos is thoroughly
invigorating. This is extremely satisfying music making, and the recording,
which appears to have originated on VOX USA from 1986, is superb.
This Nash recording of the Piano Quintet and
Horn Trio is one of the few discs from this box where I have
been able to trace the provenance. It originated on the CRD label, first
appearing in 1994, and has since been re-issued at mid-price. It now
forms part of this collection, and very welcome it is. Both performances
again tend towards the relaxed (at least in terms of basic tempo), but
are so strongly characterized as to render speed immaterial. The group
has obviously performed these works many times, and the expressive warmth
and extra degree of intensity that such familiarity brings is marked.
There is a sense of line and continuity that many higher-powered readings
fail to convey. The opening Andante of the Horn Trio,
one of Brahmsís most gloriously inspired creations, is beautifully balanced,
with Frank Lloydís rich horn tone gliding effortlessly out of the texture.
After three relaxed, luxuriant movements, the galloping finale is played
with great panache and not a little sense of sheer fun. The Piano
Quintet has pianist Ian Brown in a crucial role, and he acquits
him admirably. Once again, the classical proportions of the work are
very evident, with subtlety being the watchword. I have rarely been
as moved by the sumptuous slow movement, and there is dash and virtuosity
aplenty in the finale. Full-bodied sound quality helps the richness
of the performances, the resonant acoustic not being too troublesome.
A superb and stimulating pairing.
The record catalogue is awash with recordings of the
three Violin Sonatas, but I doubt if any are more satisfying
than this. Pauk and Vignoles know each other very well, and the partnership
works on every level. The big, high-octane swagger we hear from some
international soloists is replaced here by a superbly subtle, understated
approach that pays dividends. They take the G major Sonata spaciously,
but do not forfeit momentum in the process and the delicacy of the music
comes across convincingly, helped by the warm, well-balanced recording.
Paukís sweet-toned 1714 Stradivarius glows with a Viennese affection,
and Vignoles partners with superb understanding. Though they are probably
at their best in the gentler music, it would be wrong to suggest that
any necessary intensity or passion is lacking Ė try the development
of the Allegro amabile of the A major Sonata, where the
passion and excitement are tangible. These are deeply satisfying readings
of great music.
This disc brings us to performances of the wonderfully
contrasting Cello Sonatas, which originates from the Netherlands
and is the most recently recorded. This may mean that it was recorded
specially for this set, rather than being licensed from previous sources.
This is certainly not a problem in itself, though it is probably the
weakest disc of the box. The cello tone is reasonably sumptuous and
full-bodied, and the veteran Entremontís pianism is still worth hearing.
There is a hint of the perfunctory in places; the matter-of-fact opening
of the F major has little of the imperiousness of other accounts,
and the marvellous adagio of the same piece could have stronger
contrast and depth. That said, there are still things to enjoy. These
artists manage to convey some of the droll charm of the Allegretto
quasi menuetto of the E minor, and they are technically fleet-of-foot
in the quicker music Ė the allegro molto finale of the F major
zips along in thrilling fashion. Repeated hearings have thrown up other
good things, and to say it is the weakest simply points to the quality
of the other performances overall.
The two String Sextets are among Brahmsís greatest
compositions in any genre. They are once again on a large scale, with
long-breathed ideas worked out in a complex, though entirely approachable,
web of counterpoint. This CRD original has an augmented Alberni Quartet
giving performances of great enthusiasm and musicianship. It is thought
that the second was written in response to the failure of a friendship
with Agathe von Siebold. Whatever the case, the dark, melancholy introspection
is beautifully caught by the players. The massive architecture of each
piece (with their 15 minute first movements) is realised in playing
of great warmth, rhythmic vitality, and superb tonal blend. Another
Discs 11 & 12
The last two discs are devoted to the three Piano
Trios and the superb Clarinet Trio. The latter is another
Nimbus original, with Karl Leister and his colleagues playing with great
delicacy and poignancy Ė sample the heart-rending coda of the first
movement, where Brahms allows us to glimpse his acutely vulnerable heart.
Beautifully rich and detailed recording, with the pieceís tricky balance
as good as any Iíve heard. The Piano Trios feature the high-powered
playing of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, and very good it is
too. The youthful Op.8 (later revised) is a great success. The
scherzo is as sharply etched as any Iíve heard, and the Adagio,
with its signs of great things to come, is hushed and intense. Rubato
is tasteful throughout, and the occasional lack of poetry or emotion
is more than offset by the ebullience and dramatic sweep of the readings.
Recording quality is not as rich or detailed as some of the others,
but is perfectly acceptable.
As you will have gathered from the above, this box
is an outstanding success on almost every level. On the issue of packaging
and presentation, I gather from my colleagues that Brilliant Classics
offer two types of format. This Brahms set came to me as 12 separate
jewel cases (with brief but helpful note in each) housed in a flimsy
(virtually useless) cardboard box. The alternative is far better; the
discs housed in separate cardboard sleeves, then stored in a thicker
box with a separate booklet covering everything. This is more user friendly,
and is better for shelf space. As far as Iím aware, the only real competition
for this set is a Philips box of complete Brahms Chamber Music, but
at mid-price and featuring some much older recordings. Even collecting
via the Naxos label would set you back a fair amount for the whole output.
This Brilliant set can be had for as little as £24.00, or roughly £2.00
per disc. For quality performances, in digital sound, of some of the
greatest music ever written, Iíd say thatís the sale of the century.