Two discs with Brahms’ First and Third Piano
Quartets have come across my desk and both are capable performances.
Discontented at first, my appreciation for the latter was
much heightened by how well it stood up to the former.
The much better known and renowned Nash Ensemble
plays with more refinement and audibly indulging in the mastery
of their instruments. The more homogenous result is not generally
an advantage here, in the sense that, in most movements, it
doesn’t make the performances stand out compared to the Amity
Players. The few times it does draw our attention,
however, it does to notable benefit. Take the opening of the
fourth movement which is all elastic verve with the Nash whereas
the Amity Players (Béla Horvath, Tom Palny, Raphaël Dubé)
get into eager but gawky gear which sounds less like a flexible
stride than a wee hobble. On the upside, the Amity Players
take to the music with greater — youthful? — tenacity in some
movements and the more independent-sounding violin will please
especially those who prefer more separation among their voices,
with the strings more in the foreground.
Both groups take the Scherzo of op.60 at a
fairly brisk pace. The Nash Ensemble is through it in 4:23,
the Amity Players shave another ten seconds off that. That
avoids ponderousness in music that’s on the hefty side to
begin with and substitutes horizontal energy for gravitas.
That might not be to everyone’s taste; to these ears it’s
a fair trade-off. The delicately reluctant touch of first
violinist Horvath in the opening Andante of op.60 is, with
his tidy and resilient tone, is an absolute treat. Ian Brown’s
comparatively straight-laced entry melds in with his Nash
brethren Marianne Thorsen, Lawrence Power, and Paul Watkins
and isn’t half as exciting in this (brief) moment. The veteran
ensemble makes up for it with more steady ensemble work later
in the resolutely performed movement, though.
The Amity Players’ recording is one the artists
can be proud of and one that attendees of their concerts can
take home as a memento knowing they have gotten perfectly
fine Brahms Piano Quartets. But competition in the crowded
market is tough and won’t allow it to stand out. Complete
sets with Domus (Virgin,
still my favorite), the Beaux Arts Trio/Trampler (Philips,
and the Leopold
String Trio/Hamelin (Hyperion) are preferable, as are,
in this exact coupling, the Fauré Quartet (DG, available in
Europe) and Lars Vogt at the Heimbach Festival with players
like Julia Fischer, Kim Kashkashian, and Boris Pergamenschikow
as an ArkivCD). The Nash Ensemble gets an ever so slightly
stronger recommendation on account of superb ensemble work,
but a rave this doesn’t elicit, either.
Jens F. Laurson