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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
String Quintet in F major (1878-9) [45.11]*
String Quartet in C minor (1861-2) [21.13]
Leipzig String Quartet *with Hartmut Rohde (viola)
rec. 27-30 January 2004
MD+G Gold MDG 307 1297-2 [66.39]

The idea of chamber music generally bespeaks a certain intimacy of scale - not one of Anton Bruckner's conspicuous strengths. Indeed, to all intents and purposes, the F major Quintet is simply another of the devout Austrian's heaven-storming symphonies, decked out in minimal instrumental garb. The composer's standard harmonic and structural tics all come into play: the emphatic octave climaxes, the harmonic pivots from flat keys into distantly related tonal regions in sharps, the codas emphatically banging away at the tonic chord. And, at forty-five minutes and change, the piece is of comparably symphonic duration as well.

The Leipzig Quartet members, and their guest violist, acknowledge the scope of this music with a big-boned, firm-bowed sound, providing even the semiquavers a sense of breadth, and infusing the moving parts in the chorales (as at the Adagio's opening) with full tonal weight. They understand the music's proportions, eliciting expression from details, but never to the detriment of the music's long, arching structures. Their intonation is consistently impeccable: the most tortuous harmonic side-steps are "placed" precisely, while simple passages in thirds sing vibrantly. And, while the players know how to project the music's lyric grandeur, they don't neglect the relaxed, rustic charm of its Austrian folk elements.

Against this, an erratic attitude to dynamics is a small but definite minus. Bruckner, as an organist, knew how to use terraced dynamics for dramatic effect, and did so extensively: the score abounds in sudden drops to piano or pianissimo. Sometimes, when all five players make the adjustment (as at 4:32 in the Adagio), the effect evokes the awe the composer surely meant to suggest. But other such opportunities are completely missed, with no audible change at all (at 0:59 and again at 5:47 of the Scherzo). In still other places, leader Andreas Seidel gets markedly softer than everyone else, so the desired contrast is indicated rather than fully realized.

And the playing, sturdy and dead in tune as it is, isn't really suave. Seidel's tone can be momentarily grainy at the start or end of phrases. Solo second violin passages expose Tilman Büning's scrawny, whitish sound - though, given the frequent violin part-crossings, this actually helps the ear distinguish the voices. And cellist Matthias Moosdorf hammers away overbearingly at the first-movement coda's repeated Fs. But the players' fervent commitment ultimately convinces. Besides, modern alternatives aren't exactly thick on the ground. L'Archibudelli's Sony recording is excellent, but they're "period" players who use gut strings, to lovely but markedly different effect.

The C minor Quartet, a student work with a strongly classical, Beethovenesque profile, stands in the same relation to the Quintet that the F major "Study Symphony" - the one the French call "Double Zéro" - does to the canonical symphonies. Still, the second subject of the opening Allegro moderato evinces some of the familiar liquid misterioso quality, with the occasional moment of soaring lyricism hinting at the beauties to come. I didn't have access to a score to check on dynamics, but I doubt this early work calls for many sudden level changes, and the players certainly sound fine.

Stephen Francis Vasta



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