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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 67 (1876) [33:34]
String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1 (c.1868-73) [31:30]
Takács Quartet: (Edward Dusinberre (violin I); Károly Schranz (violin II); Geraldine Walther (viola); András Fejér (cello))
rec. St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 23-26 May 2008. DDD
HYPERION CDA67552 [65:04]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a companion disc to the Takács’ recording of the String Quartet No. 2 and Piano Quintet (CDA67551) that I welcomed here almost a year ago. At the time I had recently heard their live concert performance of the Quartet No. 1, which I described as “white-hot”. The performance recorded here, if not quite as dramatic as that one, is nonetheless exciting and probably more balanced than that one, as I remember it. As well as drama in the first and last movements, the quartet brings out the lyricism in the middle movements with more mellowness than I remember from the live performance. I compared it with my old LP by the Budapest Quartet and found the Takács generally superior not only in the recorded sound but also as an interpretation. I haven’t heard the more recent and widely praised recordings by the Emerson, but doubt that they could be any better than this new one. The tempos chosen by the Takács seem ideal to me and display more variety than the Budapest’s. Take the second movement Romanze’s second subject, starting at 1:45, for example. The Takács not only pick up the tempo more than the Budapest, but also give the rhythms a welcome lift that keeps the work from sounding stodgy. I have always found this quartet the most difficult of the three Brahms works in the genre, but this new recording convinces me that the work is on the same level as the other two.
The Op. 67 quartet also receives a wonderful performance here. It actually precedes the Quartet No. 1 on the CD, thus is listed first above. I see no obvious reason for this except that it is the more accessible of the two. As Misha Donat points out in his superb notes to the disc, Brahms had much less difficulty producing this work than he did its predecessors over which he spent a number of years. Right from the beginning, there is an infectious spontaneity in the “hunting” theme of the first movement. Such a good theme could not go under-utilized, so Brahms brings it back in the variations of the final movement. This ties the whole work together very well and gives it a unity that the other quartets lack — not that this makes it superior to those on their own terms. The Takács do full justice to this quartet as they did to the other two. Again compared to the Budapest, their livelier tempo in the third movement Agitato, Allegretto non troppo pays dividends, and special mention should be made of Geraldine Walther’s viola solos. In the finale, the Budapest’s intonation goes awry. This is not a problem with the Takács, who play in tune throughout and characterize the finale’s variations very well.
In sum, those who purchased the Takács CD of the Second Quartet and the Piano Quintet need not hesitate to get this one. As usual, Hyperion’s presentation is impeccable and the recorded sound seems even richer and more present to me than the otherwise excellent earlier disc.

Leslie Wright



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