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Schumann Symphonies Rattle


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alternatively Crotchet


Alban Berg Quartett - Piano Quintets
CD 1 [78:21]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Quintet in A “The Trout” D667 [38:47]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) Piano Quintet in A Op. 81 [39:34]
CD 2 [71:50]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Piano Quintet in F Minor Op. 34 [42:24]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Piano Quintet in E Flat Op. 44 [29:25]
Alban Berg Quartett (Günther Pichler, Gerhard Schulz (violins); Thomas Kakusa (viola); Valentin Erben (cello)); Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano), Georg Hörtnagel (double bass) (Schubert); Rudolf Buchbinder (piano) (Dvořák); Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano) (Brahms); Philippe Entremont (piano) (Schumann);
rec. June 1985, Evangelische Kirche, Seon, Switzerland (Schubert); November 1993, Konzerthaus, Vienna (live) (Dvořák); June 1987, Konzerthaus, Vienna (live) (Brahms); March 1985, Carnegie Hall, New York (live) (Schumann).
EMI CLASSICS 5176442
[78:21 + 71:50]

 

Experience Classicsonline


In the booklet note for this collection Harriet Smith helpfully points out that “the piano quintet is intrinsically one of the most dramatic of all chamber musical forms.” Perhaps unwittingly, that sentence characterises most of what you’ll hear on these discs. It collects together three of the Alban Berg Quartet’s live performances together with one specially made in the studio (the Schubert). For most of the works here drama is the key characteristic, often, it has to be said, at the expense of lyricism.
 

In this sense the stormy world of the Brahms Quintet comes off the best. The strings and piano really confront one another here and strike sparks off each other to produce a compelling performance where the momentum consistently drives forwards. The scherzo is the best example of this: the famous tutti passage where the strings take charge is placed firmly at the centre of their conception. The finale is similarly turbulent and there is a firm sense of architecture to the first movement: especially remarkable is the long-held violin note that marks the end of the exposition. 

Next to this their performance of the “Trout” quintet is rather unsmiling. The opening seems unnecessarily stern and the whole first movement feels almost relentlessly driven, like a military expedition rather than a stroll in the countryside. Similarly the sense of movement is too great for the slow movement, though it fits the Scherzo better. They relax a little for the variations and bustle pleasantly through the finale, but I can’t help but feel that with players like this, this performance is a lost opportunity. 

The Dvořák suffers similarly from too much confrontation; a consequence, one wonders, of the live performance? Does the opening cello line fool you into thinking that this will be a more tender, affectionate performance? Not a bit of it! As soon as the exposition proper kicks off (almost literally!) we are back to the confrontational elements from earlier performances. This does work well for the faster elements of the Dumka movement, and Furiant is suitably furious, but again there is a sense of passing over the score’s more thoughtful moments. 

For some reason, however, all these concerns disappear for the Schumann performance, which is by far the best on this disc. Is it a coincidence that this is also the earliest performance, and their very first live recording? The Bergs seem to have the measure of the piece from the outset and, notably, this is the work where the piano blends best with the quartet rather than setting up a confrontation, as is quite fitting for the work’s sunny character. The first movement is “brillante” without being showy and the slow march in the second movement suggests barely restrained power. The scherzo is a real treat: no conflict here, just musicians working towards a common goal and having great fun in the process. The finale takes us on a structural journey without drawing our attention to the fact: the fugue is fun rather than academic, and the reintroduction of the opening theme at the end makes perfect sense. 

A mixed bag, then, with the Brahms being successful in terms of drama, but the Schumann being the most well rounded and balanced performance. Applause is included for the live performances, with justified bravos for the Schumann.

Simon Thompson


 


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