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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Quintet for piano, 2 violins, viola and cello op. 34 (1864)
Andreas Staier (piano)
Leipzig String Quartet
Rec: 17-18 October, 2002, Furstliche Reitbahn, Bad Arolsen, DDD


Im sure that Brahms with his own Piano Quintet of 1864 was endeavouring to emulate the tremendous success of the Piano Quintet by his friend and mentor, Robert Schumann. Brahms would undoubtedly have known the work when he composed his own Piano Quintet some twenty-two years later. The work is greatly esteemed and eminent musicologist David Ewen holds the view that, the Piano Quintet is one of the supreme achievements of chamber music”.

The marketing of this release puzzles me greatly. In this very competitive field there is a most winning and critically acclaimed CD available. That disc contains both the Brahms Piano Quintet and the Schumann Piano Quintet. It is Naxos 8.550406. There is the added bonus that the Naxos disc is available at super budget price. Surely the MDG Gold label watch the activities of their competitors yet they release a recording that includes only the Brahms Piano Quintet. The MDG Brahms Quintet’s total timing runs to a derisory thirty-nine minutes; a whole twenty-seven minutes less than the Naxos release. MDG Gold could have coupled any number of companion chamber works to fill out the available space. So what would make someone buy this new MDG Gold release when the competition from one particularly outstanding recording is so fierce? Clearly the principal reason for purchasing this release would be to hear an exceptional performance!          

The experienced Leipzig String Quartet, joined here by pianist Andreas Staier, are one of Europe’s best ensembles. But not on the evidence of this release! The sonics on this recording are over-bright, especially in the forte passages and this does the augmented Leipzig String Quartet no favours whatsoever. The performance often seems laboured and frequently uninspiring as the players appear to lose their way in the demands of the bitter-sweet second movement andante. Fortunately the ensemble redeem themselves amid the challenging mood-swings of the third movement scherzo with a sure-footed and buoyant account. Brahms’ arduous and complex finale seems to baffle the players and they emerge rather heavy-handed on occasions. In this movement the unflattering acoustics behave as a severe obstacle.

Immediately after listening to this new release I put on the celebrated Naxos account. This is played by the Kodály Quartet with the now legendary pianist Jenö Jandó who is the most recorded pianist in the history of classical music recording. The difference in quality was immediately apparent. Their 1990 performance, recorded in the Italian Institute in Budapest, is consistently outstanding and particularly magnificent in the second movement andante. Another version worthy of consideration is the acclaimed reading by the Borodin Quartet with pianist Elizo Virzaladze, recorded at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall in Suffolk in November 1990. This double-set on the Warner Classics Ultima label at super budget price is amazing value and is generously coupled with Brahms’s three String Quartets op. 51/1, 51/2 and 64.   

This new release from MDG Gold, already hampered by poor acoustics and meagre value, is not in the same league as the best competitors.

Michael Cookson

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