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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet no.1 Op.51 No.1 in C minor [34:33]
Piano Quintet Op.34 in F Minor [44:09]
Quatuor Ébène; Akiko Yamamoto (piano)
rec. Ferme de Villefavard en Limousin, 5-8 May 2007 (Op.51 No.1); Fondation Singer-Polignac, Paris, 1-3 October 2007 (Op.34). DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 2166222 [78:42] 
Experience Classicsonline

French interpreters of Brahms face a range of prejudices. Can they do justice to the Classical rigour that underpins his Romanticism? Are they sufficiently in touch with his oedipal relationship with Beethoven? In the case of Quatuor Ébène the answer is ... yes … just about. The players have no hang-ups about these issues. They give these readings of the First String Quartet and the Piano Quintet the ebb and flow the works need to breathe. The players are all young, raising the prospect of another set of prejudices about the automatic need for personal maturity when interpreting works of this depth - a view that wilfully ignores the relatively young age at which Brahms wrote them. Again, this has a bearing on the interpretation. These performances have a certain face-value quality - not so much pedantic loyalty to the indications in the score as a sense of imposed correctness in the way that rubato and dynamic deviations are applied. 

The performance of the First String Quartet (Op.51 No.1) is admirable for its delicacy: the way that individual phrases are sculpted, the precise balance in the contrapuntal development sections. The recording acoustic is dry, and the microphones are close, allowing the quietest textures to be reproduced with a satisfyingly visceral sound of bow hair against string. The stereo array of the recording is also impressively engineered. The viola is clearly heard throughout, despite sharing the right channel with the more robust cello. 

The argument could be made that there is not enough structural thinking behind the interpretation, but we are not talking about Bruckner symphonies here, and the focus on the moment rarely seems inappropriate. The repeats in the score are all faithfully observed, with changes of dynamic and timbre added in each second iteration to give musical justification. The ensemble is good, but it’s not faultless, and passages at the dynamic extremes are usually the ones that suffer: stratospheric pianissimo octave doublings between the violins, for example, and fortissimo section climaxes. It’s not a big grumble, but with this repertoire the competition is fierce. 

The Piano Quintet (Op.34) is given an appropriately epic reading, by turns expansive, heroic, even symphonic. Pianist Akiko Yamamoto matches the Ébène sound magnificently. Here again the precision of the recorded sound pays dividends, with Yamamoto’s touch at the quietest dynamics complementing the strings, and all picked up in sensational detail. As for the more dramatic passages, neither pianist nor quartet holds back on the music’s extremes. The details of Brahms’ dynamics pose a certain problem with regard to tastefulness; he often gives very brief hairpins between extreme dynamics over the course of a few notes. The quartet achieve an impressive feat in honouring these directions and making the results sound dramatic rather than histrionic. 

These are much recorded works, so it is to the credit of Quatuor Ébène and Akiko Yamamoto that their interpretations are both fresh and individual. They are unlikely to wrest the benchmark status from recordings by more mature performers - the Takács Quartet - or top name German groups - the Artemis Quartet - but this is an elegant and accomplished recording, and deserves to be appreciated for its own considerable merits. 

Gavin Dixon 




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