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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quintet in F minor Op.34 (1862) (reconstructed by Sebastian Brown) (1946) [42:34]
Joseph Miroslav WEBER (1854-1906)
String Quintet in D major (1898) [28:14]
Divertimenti Ensemble: Paul Barritt and Rachel Isserlis (violins); Jonathan Barritt (viola); Josephine Horder and Sebastian Comberti (cellos)
rec. St. Paul’s Deptford, London, April 2006. DDD

There are two world premiere recordings here, one of them highly surprising.  Brahms’s Op.34 had a convoluted history. It began as a string quintet in 1862 in which form Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim liked it but also criticised it – the latter objecting to the lack of “delicacy of sound.” Joachim who refused a public performance did at least play it in private for Brahms in May 1863. Brahms then rewrote it as a Sonata for two pianos and then apparently, according to Andrew Stewart’s informative notes, destroyed the quintet. Clara Schumann now found fault with the sonata, a view seconded by Hermann Levi; Clara even recommended an orchestral version. Assailed on all sides Brahms responded by reworking it as the Piano Quintet that we know today. In that form it was completed by October 1864.
Then it really gets complicated. The String Quintet was reconstructed by Sebastian H. Brown during the Second World War. From the tersely lurid account given in the biography of the English cellist Amaryllis Fleming – who gave the premiere of the String Quintet with André Mangeot’s Quartet in 1946 - I was under the misapprehension that Brown had claimed to be in communion with the spirit world. If so the precedent of Jelly d’Aranyi and the Schumann Violin Concerto would have been all too real. But it appears that the truth is rather more methodical. Brown studied both scores – the Piano Quintet and the Sonata – extensively and made significant analysis of them. I’m still not quite sure what Brown means when he was quoted in a 1946 Gramophone as saying that during his nighttime air raid perambulations “the actual scoring of the lost quintet was revealing itself … in great detail.” If not quite a hint of something supernatural there it sounds at least Wordsworthian.
The performance, let me say first of all, is here played with both boldness and refinement. One is most disconcerted by the Scherzo where the missing piano is most acutely felt. But if one submits to the allure of the all-string textures then one will perhaps agree with Ernest Newman who went on record that in his view “the musical thinking finds its true correlative in the pure string texture.” I think that’s a true and felicitously expressed perception.
Joseph Miroslav Weber was born in Prague in 1854. He studied violin and organ there and subsequently became solo violinist in Sondershausen in Thuringia. Conducting also claimed him – Prague once more and elsewhere throughout Austro-Hungary. In 1883 he became Kapellmeister in Wiesbaden and a decade later found him relinquishing conductorial duties as second Konzertmeister of the Munich court orchestra – a prestige appointment. In 1901 he became first Konzertmeister, a position he held until his death five years later. During these last years he composed, played chamber music and even kept up a correspondence with the young Arnold Schoenberg. 
His String Quintet of 1898 is a totally engaging work, from which nothing could deflect me. It’s not a masterpiece but it does fuse certain important strands in central European chamber music – the dictates of structure and melody, songfulness and native rhythmic drive, the assimilation of Bohemian dance patterns and the like. The first movement is the longest and its intriguing superscription “As the Herr “Professors would want to compose” certainly strongly hints at the tensions between academics and more freethinking composers at the time. What’s striking about Weber is how Dvořákian he can sound – not surprising given that he studied in Prague but not necessarily typical of a German-speaking composer of the period. His Czech musical affiliations certainly ran stronger than the superficial elements of an Empire composer might suggest. His control of rhythms, registers and expressive intensities is solid. The evoking of the Obkročak dance in the Scherzo is exciting, laced as it is with drones and chattering, loquacious string figures. Similarly the slow movement is highly expressive; the cello’s winding aria is especially touching and generates delicious warmth. The fresh air of the finale carries with it reminiscences of the scherzo in particular. It makes a satisfying structural platform and Weber’s distribution of texture and melody is highly persuasive. A real find, this, recorded quite close and played with verve and just the right kind of sentiment by this experienced and expert chamber group.
You can therefore use this disc to do two things; to discover a vibrant and exciting forgotten composer and to encounter an old friend in new clothes.
Jonathan Woolf


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