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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Piano Quartet (1876) [11:18]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Piano Quartet (1988) [6:22]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor, Op 25 (1861) [43:38]
Avery Ensemble
rec. Millard Auditorium, The Hartt School, West Hartford, Conneticut, USA, 12, 14 March 2007.
ZEPHYR 001-B [62:16]
Experience Classicsonline

This disc features intelligent and interesting programming from this American ensemble associated with Hartford University (CT) Conservatory.
The first track comprises a sizeable fragment, which is what remains in a performable state, of a definitive work from Mahler's earliest days as a composer. It was perhaps written when he was only 16 years of age. Although dating from 1876, this work was not published until almost a century later. The merit of this incomplete piece is sufficient that one can only feel disappointed both that Mahler did not complete this particular quartet, and that he did not continue or resume the writing of chamber music. Considering that his orchestral works are particularly known for their large forces, Mahler's distinctive sound comes across surprisingly well in this more intimate medium.
A small additional piece from this work has also been found, a Scherzo in G minor, and this forms the basis for Schnittke's Piano Quartet, which follows. Schnittke also orchestrated this fragment in the second movement of his Concerto Grosso number 4/Symphony number 5 (1988). He places Mahler's melody in opposition to a motif, used repeatedly in his "Penitential Psalms" - where it is used to symbolise timelessness. Later in this short but intense work there is a paraphrase from the energy theme of Richard Strauss's Eine AlpenSymphonie, which has been thought to be an elegy for Mahler himself. The work closes with a simple restatement of the Mahler fragment; leaving it "unfinished" rather than "reconstructed" or "completed".
The disc concludes with the more substantial, indeed meaty, Piano Quartet number 1 - sharing with Schnittke's Quartet the key of G minor - by Brahms. It allows the listener to compare the sound-worlds of the young Mahler and Brahms, who completed his last piano quartet when Mahler entered the Vienna Conservatory. However this is a relatively early work from Brahms's considerable chamber output, one of the first to include the piano. It was rapidly followed by the more lyrical Piano Quartet number 2. This quartet is quite substantial, at 43 minutes, and opens in a serious mood with a muscular, spare and energetic Allegro. The second movement is more moderately paced, and an intermezzo rather than the more conventional rapid scherzo. That said, it does have a quicker central trio section which is recalled briefly at the end. The ending of the work "in the gypsy style" is by contrast exuberant and exhilarating.
There are a number of other recordings of the Brahms quartet, most usually and quite naturally programmed with his other works in the same format. Those who enjoy Brahms's chamber music would probably want one of these collections. This is an interesting alternative, drawing together works linked in ways other than being a chronological survey of particular composers’ outputs. Those with a serious interest in Mahler are likely to find this disc of considerable interest.
Julie Williams


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