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
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.