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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 (1864) [40:10]
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2 (c.1868-73) [33:11]
Stephen Hough (piano)
Takács Quartet: (Edward Dusinberre (violin I); Károly Schranz (violin II); Geraldine Walther (viola); András Fejér (cello))
rec. St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 21-24 May 2007. DDD
HYPERION CDA67551 [73:19]

This is the second disc the Takács Quartet has recorded for Hyperion and also their second recording with Geraldine Walther as violist. Earlier they recorded the Schubert 13th and 14th quartets (see review). As readers will likely know, the original Takács Quartet, formed in 1975, was composed of four Hungarians with Gábor Takács-Nagy as first violin - hence the quartet’s name - and Gábor Ormai on viola. In 1993 Edward Dusinberre replaced Takács-Nagy and two years later Roger Tapping replaced Ormai. So, the quartet lost some of its Hungarian identity and became bi-national with the addition of the British members. In both of these earlier incarnations they recorded a broad repertoire for Decca. Their cycle of the Beethoven quartets received great acclaim. They also recorded the Brahms quartets and the quintet with András Schiff as pianist. In 2005, the American Geraldine Walther replaced Tapping as violist and the quartet became truly international. With this latest change in personnel, they switched recording companies and now record for Hyperion. Over the years they have remained one of the world’s premier chamber ensembles. That they continue to produce exciting music is witnessed by this latest release.
There have been plenty of fine recordings of the Brahms Piano Quintet. My introduction to the work was with the venerable Budapest String Quartet and Rudolf Serkin. The recent competition includes a recording by the Emerson with Leon Fleisher (DG) and an even newer one by the Artemis with Leif Ove Andsnes. Michael Cookson (see review) found Fleisher’s performance rather leaden, but praised the Emerson in both the quartets and quintet. The Takács bring out the impetuosity of the work and treat it as the composition of a young composer that it is. At first glance, their timing may seem longer than normal; this is because they take the repeat in the first movement, which adds an extra three minutes. Overall, the tempos are in the normal range. However, Stephen Hough and the quartet have more flexible tempi and a greater dynamic range than, say, the excellent Kodály Quartet with Jenö Jandó on Naxos. Hough’s piano is well integrated in the recording and he plays as one among equals, without soloistic grandstanding. Like the Budapest of yore, the Takács are not afraid to sacrifice perfect intonation occasionally to their expressive ends. In the third movement Scherzo the music positively flies off their bows and they relax ever so slightly for the Trio. Their interpretation of the last movement also plays up the work’s contrasts and really takes off at the final Presto non troppo. This is as exciting a version of the work as is available and the disc is made all the more attractive by its coupling. The smoother performance by the Kodály should not be ignored, however, especially as it is accompanied by an equally good recording of the Schumann, a more usual disc-mate.
Brahms’s Quartet No. 2 is for me the most approachable of his three works in the genre. It brings out his lyrical side more than the other two. Take, for example, the first movement’s second subject, the whole second movement and the third movement’s quasi-minuet main section. Here Brahms’s lyricism is given full measure. Then the finale contrasts with what has gone before; its energetic dance-like character ends the work with real vivacity. Geraldine Walther’s viola is particularly eloquent in this movement. Again the Takács play the first movement repeat, something that cannot be taken for granted. In many ways, this performance reminded me of the old Budapest Quartet recording form the 1960s, by duly emphasizing the lyrical while not neglecting the dramatic. It is a tremendous performance and one that sets the seal on a great disc. I assume the Takács will be recording the other two quartets in the near future. I had the privilege of hearing them perform the first quartet recently at the Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia. Judging from that white-hot account, their recording will be something to await eagerly.
Leslie Wright


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