my experience any new release from the Emerson Quartet is cause
for celebration. On this new issue they are joined by legendary
American pianist Leon Fleisher. Upon receiving this Deutsche
Grammophon disc for review I couldn’t wait to discover if the partnership
would live up to their distinguished reputations.
opening work is the String Quartet No. 1 a score dedicated
to Brahms’ friend Dr. Theodor Billroth of Vienna. The cautious
Brahms agonised over this work it is known that he had made
several attempts in the genre before presenting the C minor.
A common criticism levelled at the work is the disconcerting
bleakness of the writing with Brahms placing too little emphasis
on melody. I was interested in the viewpoint of the two biographers:
Walter Frisch who described the score as, “an intense,
mostly dark work” and Ivor Keys writing that, “grittiness
is certainly in evidence.”
the extended first movement Allegro the Emersons provide
serious and robust playing contrasted with episodes of great
tenderness. The fractious quality and relative gloom of the
Allegro is dispelled with the warm lyricism of the Romanze
here interpreted with intensity and deep concentration.
I enjoyed the moderately paced third movement interpreted with
a strong sense of spontaneity. The agitated quality of the music
is always present in a movement fuses the martial with the whimsical.
The Allegro, finale contains unsettling music
with undertones of hurt and anger that the Emersons perform
with a convincing degree of drama.
String Quartet No. 2 is a dense, yet appealing score
that places considerable emphasis on shifting moods. Composed
around the same time as its predecessor this score again bears
a dedication Dr. Billroth. In the extended and rather technical
opening Allegro the Emersons expertly bring out a bitter-sweet
quality. With controlled playing of the highest quality one
feels an underlying pain and anguish in the sombre slow movement
and by contrast the relatively short Menuetto alternates
brooding lyricism with passages of impressive vigour. In the
finale the Emersons are compelling in the two contrasting dance
themes, one akin to an Hungarian stomp and the second lighter
and more gentle in the style of a Viennese waltz.
wrote his String Quartet No. 3 in 1876 and dedicated
it to his friend Professor Theodor Wilhelm Engelmann from the
University of Utrecht. It is a good-humoured score that makes
a marked contrast to the two earlier quartets. Frisch referred
to it as, “neoclassical in spirit, but ultra-sophisticated
in its triumph.”
Emersons are in buoyant mood in this generally agreeable opening
movement, marked Vivace permeated with typical Brahmsian
moodiness and occasional petulance. One cannot help but be impressed
with the level of serenity the Emersons disclose in the Andante,
“a song without words.” One becomes particularly aware
of the movement’s concluding Amen. Lawrence Dutton’s
viola part takes centre-stage in the disconcerting third movement
Allegretto where the interpretation emphasises the anxiety
of emotional stormy waters. A calm conclusion at 6:58 provides
welcome respite. The finale is a theme and variations in which
the Emersons convincingly convey the light-hearted character
of the dance. From 6:07 the players strengthen the tempo in
a cheerful dash for the finishing line, rather like children
scampering home from school; pausing only for the occasional
are highly satisfying performances that now sit proudly alongside
the acclaimed performances from the legendary Borodin Quartet
on Teldec, as my benchmark. The Borodin set shares the same
programme as the Emersons and was recorded at both Snape Maltings,
Suffolk in 1990 (Op. 51/1; 67) and Berlin in 1993 (Op. 51/2;
34) reissued on the Teldec ‘Ultima’ label 8573-87802-2 (c/w
Brahms Piano Quintet, Op. 34 discussed below).
the String Quartet No. 1 I can highly recommend the splendid
version from the eminent Belcea Quartet for their enviable style
and natural warmth. Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk in 2003
Classics 5 57661 2 (c/w String Quintet, Op.
The final work on the set is Brahms’s Piano
Quintet. This is a greatly esteemed work,
a staple of the standard repertoire and according to
musicologist David Ewen, “one of
the supreme achievements of chamber music.”
Although many chamber music lovers will know this delightful
and popular Quintet few will know its convoluted
history as it began life as the String Quintet in F minor.
Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim pointed out deficiencies in
the manuscript of the String Quintet and a doubtless
disenchanted and demoralised Brahms abandoned the score stating,
“it will be better if it goes to sleep.” He reworked
the material (1863-64) into a Sonata in F minor for two pianos
that was published in 1871 as his Op. 34b. With the urging
of Clara Schumann, Brahms returned to the music in 1864 to create
his third and final version for Piano Quintet in F minor,
Op. 34 that he dedicated to Princess Anna of Hesse.
In the Piano Quintet the Emersons are here joined by
pianist Leon Fleisher, however I found their collaboration to
be generally disappointing. Who can forget Fleisher’s performances
of Brahms’s two Piano Concertos with the Cleveland Symphony
Orchestra under George Szell - recorded in Cleveland’s Severance
Hall in 1958 and 1962 respectively. My copy of the digitally
remastered recordings is on Sony Classical ‘Masterworks Heritage’
MH2K 63225. Evidently it is only in recent years that Fleisher
has returned to performing two-hand repertoire as from the mid
nineteen-sixties he experienced the debilitating neurological
disorder of focal dystonia in his right hand.
mighty and substantial opening Allegro non troppo possesses
a serious character to which the Emersons and Fleisher contribute
just the right amount of tension. They are not afraid to slow
right down and adopt speeds that seem far slower than one is
familiar with from the Borodins and Elizo Virzaladze on Teldec
or the Leipzig Quartet with Andreas Staier on MDG. The slow
movement is a stark contrast - a typical Brahmsian blend of
bitter-sweet. I loved the way the players infuse an appealing
Schubertian character to the melodies. The working of three
contrasting themes marks the invigorating Scherzo movement.
I was struck by how much the Emersons vary their tempi and accentuate
the wide dynamics, and at the same time was saddened by Fleisher’s
lacklustre playing. In the complex and unrelenting final movement
Brahms writes for a wide range of chaotic emotions with a headlong
dash to the wire. Here the rather leaden approach adopted by
the pianist seems to rub off on the string players leaving one
to almost scream for more vigour and vivacity.
alternative recordings of the Piano Quintet I wholeheartedly
recommend the outstanding Naxos account from the Kodály with
Jenö Jandó. The legendary Jandó is now the most recorded pianist
in the history of classical music. Their outstanding playing
is consistently inspired and particularly magnificent in the
second movement Andante. Recorded in 1990 at the Italian
Institute in Budapest on Naxos 8.550406 the disc has the great
advantage of being coupled with an equally uplifting and enjoyable
account of Schumann’s Piano Quintet.
Borodins are joined in the Piano Quintet by Virsaladze
for a sparkling and exceptional performance that was recorded
in Berlin in 1993 now on Teldec ‘Ultima’ 8573-87802-2 (c/w Brahms
String Quartets 1-3 discussed above). Some may have slight
reservations over the balance of the forward-placed piano in
the forte passages.
summarise, this DG recording has a clear and dry sound quality,
however, the playing would have benefited from some bloom. At
various points I can detect what sounds like slight echoes making
me wonder if studio reverb has been added to provide depth to
the sound-picture. It would not be the first time that the recording
engineer used by the Emersons has engaged in sonic creativity.
Walter Frisch’s essay is easy to read providing most of the
essential information. The booklet contains three rare and interesting
photographs of Brahms, pictured whilst out on a walk with friends
in Bad Honnef, taken in 1896 the year before his death.
performances of the Quartets rank alongside the finest
in the catalogue and should delight Brahms lovers. Although
getting off to a reasonable enough start their interpretation
of the Quintet with Fleisher is far less convincing and
I would look elsewhere for an alternative version.
Grammophon has provided the following additional information:
1st violin (Op. 51 No. 1, Op. 34), 2nd violin (Op. 51 No. 2,
1st violin (Op. 51 No. 2, Op. 67), 2nd violin (Op. 51 No. 1,