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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quintet in G major, op.111 (1890)
String Quintet in F major, op. 88 (1882)
Leipzig String Quartet
Hartmut Rohde (viola)
Rec: 16-17 Feb; 23-24 Apr 2003, Lindensaal Markkleberg, Germany. DDD

The prolific Leipzig String Quartet are making quite a name for themselves in the recording studios and are in my opinion currently one of Europe’s premiere chamber ensembles. Their recent MDG collections of the complete Schubert string quartets and the Reger chamber music, in addition to their continuing cycles of the complete Mendelssohn string quartets and Brahms and Beethoven chamber music et al have all been received with considerable critical acclaim. I was overjoyed with a recent Leipzig String Quartet release of the Dvořák Piano Quintet op.81 and String Quintet op.97 on MDG GOLD 307 1249-2 which I had the good fortune to review.

Brahms displayed a fondness for composing many of his works in sets of pairs such as the: two Piano Concertos; two Orchestral Serenades; the Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures; two Cello Sonatas, two Sextets, the Piano Quartets No. 1 and 2, the Song of Fate and Song of Triumph, for Chorus and Orchestra. The two String Quintets featured on this MDG release form part of that pattern. Like the String Quintets of Mozart, Brahms scores both his String Quintets for two violins, two violas and cello. The selection of two violas is characteristic of Brahms who admired the register of the instrument and the richness of texture that it can impart.

In 1882, whilst on vacation at the fashionable salt water Spa resort of Bad Ischl in the Austrian lake district, Brahms composed the three movement String Quintet in F major, op. 88. The composer was delighted with his efforts and described it as a ‘beautiful work’. Brahms's friend Theodor Billroth also raved about the first String Quintet stating, "After every movement there stands 'In the Spring of 1882'. And truly everything sounds and breathes Spring." Not surprisingly the String Quintet is sometimes given the title ‘Spring’.

The reflective yearning and cheerful optimism in the central movement of the first String Quintet is particularly well performed by the Leipzig String Quartet and provides an emotional roller-coaster for the listener. The string ensemble’s playing, always alert and sensitive is impressive and authoritative throughout.

Brahms intended his four movement String Quintet in G major, op.111 to be his last chamber work although that was not to be. Also composed in Bad Ischl some eight years later in 1890 when Brahms was fifty-seven the work contains much youthful exuberance combined with vigour and optimism. It has been said that naturalness, harmony and joy immediately come to mind as attributes for the second String Quintet. One contemporary of Brahms even heard "the cheerful, relaxed atmosphere of the Vienna Prater", and the composer could only confirm this impression, "Isn't it so! And the many pretty girls in it!"

Straight from the opening bars of the second String Quintet the Leipzig String Quartet give notice that they mean business providing a vigorous and deeply satisfying performance. The players are in top form amongst the cheerfulness of the opening movement and the third movement Scherzo. The tragedy of the second movement Adagio is thoughtfully performed by the Leipzig String Quartet displaying the intensity of this deeply sorrowful music.

With regard to alternative versions of both these two String Quintets the main competition comes from the Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion CDA 66804 and the Hagen Quartet on DG 453 420-2 both of which will provide considerable satisfaction. For the second String Quintet op.111 only, my preferred version is the recently released glorious interpretation by the Belcea Quartet on EMI Classics 557661 2.

It is almost becoming monotonous to comment about the fine sound quality from the MDG engineers. The annotation is also up to the usual high standard. My only grouse is why the record company, have for some reason, confusingly placed the second String Quintet, op.111 before the first String Quintet, op.88 on the release. All future programming in chronological order please!

This is a really high class recording. Recommended!

Michael Cookson

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