am, reluctantly, convinced of the merits of the Brahms String
Quartet in A minor op.51, no.2. I just have yet to be touched,
charmed or moved by it. I’ve tried to let the
Emerson and the Takács Quartets do that for me, but they only
offered excellence, not grit or inescapable passion. Three’s
a charm though, and the third recording of the A minor quartet
I’ve come across this year may have done it for me.
Brahms develops a 35 minute quartet out of just a few basic
musical building blocks, the result is - or can be - an expressive
stringency of which Hugo Wolf declared Brahms the “undisputed
master of composing without ideas”. Even Britten quipped that
it wasn’t bad Brahms that he minded, but good Brahms that he
I’d snicker with delighted, if embarrassed agreement – at least
where Brahms’ string quartets are concerned. But the combination
of cohesion and energy of the Mandelring
Quartett (who played
Brahms at the Library of Congress in 2006) makes for an unusually
compelling, indeed spellbinding performance. Brahms, for once,
seems successfully to reach the pinnacle of a composer’s ambition
that is the string quartet with op.51/2. This is a string quartet
that fascinated Schoenberg for its economy of means and made him
Brahms ‘a progressive’. I will have to explore the other two
volumes of their Brahms traversal – made only more attractive
by their inclusion of string quartets of (forgotten) contemporaries
of Brahms. If ever issued as a set – hopefully retaining the ‘fillers’
– it might well vie for the reference recording spot with the
Alban Berg Quartet’s EMI recording.
This disc is worth a strong recommendation for the Brahms A minor alone.
But there is more. Rather than point out that the ‘filler’ on
the Brahms is “this neat, unknown F.O. Dessoff”, the performance
and the quartet deserve to be mentioned, praised, and recommended
separately. In fact, I’d give this disc the same two thumbs up
even if it only included either of the two quartets.
That’s not only because the playing is outstanding but also because
Dessoff’s op.7 is much more than just an afterthought to the Brahms
quartet. It’s a wonderful work that deserves to be smack-dab in
the middle of the string quartet repertoire of more groups than
just the Mandelring. Brahms himself, a friend of Dessoff’s, found
to have “such an unassuming face that one hardly dare praise it
out loud … It would greatly please me to have my name printed
on the front page of this quartet that is amiable smiling at me
Best’s liner-notes mention that Dessoff did not want to sully
his reputation as a great performer with a second-rate composition.
He need not have worried in this case. The F major quartet smiles
amiably, indeed. All four movements are ear-catching, a joy
to listen to, unpretentious, simple but not simplistic, full
of joy but not silly.
makes it so immediately and lastingly enjoyable is perhaps that
skilled but still not so very seriously well crafted Brahms
element in it, or the fact that it is perfectly romantic without
being burdened with dreamy portentousness - Schumann, some may
delicate pizzicato theme running through the opening Larghetto
merges with beautiful lyrical lines for an exquisite slow movement.
The Poco andantino has Viennese café-house mood and
gaiety running through its veins … and that from a cool northern
German! The outer movements, a driving Allegro ben moderato
and a busy Allegro con brio have less of a personal
touch to them but are more than adequate opening and closing
statements. What else did this Dessoff compose?
why it took nine years for this disc to be released I do not know.
Jens F. Laurson