> Johannes Brahms - Complete Chamber Music [TH]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Complete Chamber Music

Disc 1

Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, Op. 25
Piano Quartet No.2 in C minor, Op. 60

Derek Han (piano), Isabelle Faust (violin)
Bruno Giuranna (viola), Alain Meunier (cello)
Recorded in Sion, Switzerland, August 21-24 1996 [71.53]
Disc 2

Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op.26

Artists and recording as above [45.34]
Disc 3

String Quintet No.1 in F major, Op.88
String Quintet No.2 in G major, Op.111

Brandis Quartet: Thomas Brandis (violin), Peter Brem (violin)
Wilfried Strehle (viola), Wolfgang Boettcher (cello) with Brett Dean (viola)
Recorded at Teldec Studio, Berlin June-July 1996 [59.04]
Disc 4

Clarinet Sonata in F minor, Op.120, No.1
Clarinet Sonata in E flat major, Op.120, No.2

Karl Leister (clarinet), Ferenc Bognar (piano)
Recorded at Teldec Studio, Berlin February 1996 [46.19]
Disc 5

Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115
String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.51, No.2

Karl Leister (clarinet) Brandis Quartet (Quintet)
Tokyo Quartet (Quartet)
Recorded June 1996 (Quintet), 1986 (Quartet)
Disc 6

String Quartet No.1 in C minor, Op.51, No.1
String Quartet No.3 in B flat major, Op.67

Tokyo Quartet: Peter Oundjian (violin), Kikuei Ikeda (violin), Kazuhide Isomura (viola), Sadao Harada (cello)
Recorded 1986 [64.31]
Disc 7

Horn Trio in E flat major, Op.40
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34

Nash Ensemble: Marcia Crayford (violin), Elizabeth Layton (violin)
Roger Chase (viola), Christopher van Kampen (cello), Ian Brown (piano)
Frank Lloyd (horn)
Recorded at St. Paulís Church, New Southgate, London, November 1991 [72.36]
Disc 8

Violin Sonata No.1 in G major, Op.78
Violin sonata No.2 in A major, Op.100

Violin Sonata no.3 in D minor, Op.108
Gyorgy Pauk (violin), Roger Vignoles (piano)
Recorded 1991 [71.74]
Disc 9

Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor, Op.38
Cello Sonata No.2 in F major, Op.99

Herre-Jan Stegenga (cello), Philippe Entremont (piano)
Recorded in the Netherlands, June, 2000 [50.07]
Disc 10

String Sextet No.1 in B flat major, Op.18
String Sextet No.2 in G major, Op.36

Alberni Quartet: Howard Davis (violin), Peter Pople (violin), Berian evans (viola)
David Smith (cello), with Roger Best (viola) and Moray Walsh (cello)
Recorded London 1978 [77.47]
Disc 11

Piano Trio No.1 in B major, Op.8
Piano Trio No.3 in C minor, Op.101

Joseph Kalichstein (piano), Jaime Laredo (violin), Sharon Robinson (cello)
Recorded 1985
Disc 12

Piano Trio No.2 in C major, Op.87
Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op.114

Artists as above (Piano Trio)
Karl Leister (clarinet), Ferenc Bognar (piano), Wolfgang Boettcher (cello)
Recorded 1985 (Piano Trio), 1997 (Clarinet Trio) [54.35]

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 intimacy.

Disc 3

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.

Disc 4

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.

Disc 5

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.

Disc 6

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.

Disc 7

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.

Disc 8

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.

Disc 9

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.

Disc 10

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 real winner.

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.

Tony Haywood

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