The Takács Quartet has already made several distinguished recordings
for Hyperion; I chose three of them for my recent personal choice
Hyperion CDs in celebration of the advent of their download
service: Schubert’s String Quartets 13 and 14 (CDA67585), Brahms’s
Piano Quintet and String Quartet, Op.51/2 (CDA67551) and his
String Quartets, Op.51/1 and Op.67 (CDA67552).
In the Brahms Piano Quintet, the Takács Quartet was ably partnered
by Stephen Hough; in Schumann they are abetted by another fine
pianist, Marc-André Hamelin, with whom they have played the
work in public. I missed the BBC broadcast of their performance
at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in May, 2009, where Colin Clarke
thought Hamelin’s playing a little rough – see review;
by the time that these recordings were set down, a few days
later, matters had clearly improved.
The first movement is marked Allegro brillante, but it
opens with a pretty positive statement and the Hyperion performers
give this due weight. Their timing here of 8:57 overall, which
seems instinctively right and is in line with most performances
apart from Leif Ove Andsnes and the Artemis Quartet, on an award-winning
Virgin CD, who shave over half a minute off that time. I’ve
seen the new recording described as promoting energy at the
expense of tenderness, but there seem to me to be equal amounts
of those qualities here.
The most distinctive feature of the new version of the Schumann
Quintet concerns the slow speed at which the Hyperion performers
take the second movement: Leif Ove Andsnes and the Artemis Quartet
take 7:57, Jenö Jandó with the Kodaly Quartet on a very serviceable
Naxos recording 8:07, while the Takács/Hamelin performance runs
to 8:58. They open the movement with very deliberate and undemonstrative
playing; I wasn’t sure that it was going to work at first –
there’s not much here of the march indicated by the direction
in modo d’una marcia, but the slow opening tempo does
provide for real contrast with the agitato central section.
In any case, the march in question is pretty unusual: the anonymous
notes to the Naxos CD refer to it as ‘sinister’ and Misha Donat,
in his excellent contribution to the Hyperion booklet points
out that it only just misses being a funeral march. Even by
the end of the movement, I wasn’t entirely sold on the tempo,
but I have to admit that it works – and it’s only a few seconds
slower than the 8:46 taken by my third comparison, the classic
version by the augmented Beaux Arts Trio on Philips Duo.
Donat describes the following Scherzo as ‘glittering’.
A more apt epithet for the opening of the Hyperion performance
might be ‘bubbling’; here the fastish tempo – a few seconds
faster than the Naxos or Virgin – presents a real contrast with
the tempo of the second movement. It is marked molto vivace
and Hamelin dashes off some pretty nimble finger-work without
articulation or phrasing ever suffering and he is splendidly
The free-wheeling performance of the finale is certainly Allegro,
but it’s reined in enough also to satisfy the non troppo
rider. The basic tempo is a shade slower than the Naxos or the
Virgin – both much in agreement as they are throughout movements
2-4 – but it seems to me about right and it rounds off a convincing
performance overall. I’m sure that I’ll get over that slight
feeling of discomfort with the second movement in time.
The Beaux Arts Trio couple the Quintet with excellent versions
of the complete Piano Trios on a wonderful 2-CD set at budget
price (Philips Duo 456 323 2, at around Ł9). These Duos are
disappearing at an alarming rate – though it is to be hoped
that many of them will reappear even less expensively on Eloquence
– so you may want to snap this up now.
Andsnes and the Artemis Quartet couple the Schumann and Brahms
Piano Quintets – perhaps the most logical coupling of all
for a CD which comes replete with awards (Virgin 3951432,
but obtainable for around Ł12 - see review). Janö Jandó and
Quartet have the same coupling (8.550406).
Happy as I am with the Hyperion recording of the Quintet, I
was surprised not to be quite so attracted to the version of
the Quartet – the first time that I have been even a little
disappointed with any recording by the Takács Quartet, on Hyperion
or, earlier, on Decca. Everything seems to be in its proper
place, but it didn’t quite catch fire for me, perhaps because
all four movements are a little rushed – of which, more below.
Wondering why the performance didn’t quite gel for me, I sneaked
a peek at some other reviews – something which I usually avoid
until I’ve decided what I am going to say. One had no qualms
at all, preferring the performance even to the award-winning
Zehetmair Quartet version on ECM, the other felt that the manic
Florestan side of Schumann’s personality had been allowed to
dominate, much preferring that ECM version. Neither quite explained
my lack of engagement, though the more positive review assured
me that the performance would grow through repeated hearing;
perhaps it will – I certainly liked it enough to want to give
it a chance.
As they did in the case of Brahms, Hyperion will doubtless give
us recordings by the Takács Quartet of the remaining two Schumann
String Quartets. For those who cannot wait, Naxos offer a splendid
bargain in the form of all three works, squeezed onto a single
CD, by the Fine Arts Quartet (8.570151), which Göran Forsling
made Bargain of the Month – see review
– a judgement with which I am happily in accord. Inspired by
GF’s review, I downloaded this recording in lossless (flac)
sound from passionato
and was very happy with the result. Alternatively, this recording
may be downloaded less expensively in good mp3 sound, again
from passionato or from classicsonline,
with Keith Anderson’s notes available from the latter.
The Fine Arts Quartet’s tempi for all four movements are rather
more expansive than those of the Takács on Hyperion. The longest
of the three Op.41 quartets, it emerges at the hands of the
Fine Arts Quartet five-and-a-half minutes more weighty than
from the Takács, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Their broad
tempo for the third movement, Adagio molto, may go some
way to explaining why I prefer this Naxos performance. Elsewhere,
as GF says, the playing is full of nuance and the high-spirited
account of the finale sets the seal on a fine recording. I’m
not sure about the two jolly vagabonds whom he envisages disporting
themselves in this movement – music tends to evoke words for
me, not pictures – but I get his point. The performances of
other two Op.41 quartets are equally attractive.
I’m at something of a loss, then, to explain why I engage so
readily with the Fine Arts version and less readily with the
Takács, for all the virtues of their playing. I’m aware that
others may well think otherwise – that at least one other reviewer
did so – and I’m sufficiently pleased with the new Hyperion
recording to ditch Jandó and the Kodály Quartet in the Quintet,
already superseded in the Brahms by the Takács/Hough version.
Perhaps the new recording of the Quartet will grow on me.
The recording and presentation are up to Hyperion’s usual high
standards, with one of their evocative cover paintings of a
romantic landscape which have added to the attraction of their
Takács recordings and with excellent notes from Misha Donat.
Try the sample tracks on the Hyperion website and if, like me,
you find yourself a little disappointed with the Quartet, go
for the Naxos bargain. You may even wish to supplement the Hyperion
recording with that inexpensive disc or download.
see also review by Dominy
Clements (January 2010 Recording of the Month)