Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Trio in A minor Op.114 [24:36]
Piano Quartet No.2 in A Op.26 [49:01]
The Nash Ensemble (Ian Brown (piano); Richard Hosford (clarinet); Marianne Thorsen (violin); Lawrence Power (viola); Paul Watkins (cello))
rec. Menuhin Hall, Menuhin School, Cobham, Surrey, 13, 15, 16 July 2009. Stereo. DDD
ONYX CLASSICS ONYX 4045 [73:46]

This is an impressive addition to the Nash Ensembleís growing catalogue of Brahms recordings. And as with their recording of the String Sextets, and of the First and Third Piano Quartets, a real sense of collective endeavour permeates these performances. You really get the impression that the works are being played as chamber music: passionate without being histrionic, precisely coordinated but with freely expressive solo lines, and balanced to give each player equal prominence.

The scoring of the Clarinet Trio Ė clarinet, cello, piano Ė helps to delineate each of the voices, and in this work it is to the credit of the players and the sound engineers alike that so much coherency is achieved in the ensemble. All three players come across with a warm yet focused tone. The democracy of the Nash Ensembleís approach is demonstrated by the fact that the clarinet never seems to dominate as a solo instrument. Again, this may in part be due to the sound engineering and the way that the upper register of the piano has a roundness of tone that perfectly complements the clarinetís sound. Dynamic and tempo markings are observed but never exaggerated, the poco F at the opening for example, is interpreted as an indication of clarity of tone and phrasing rather than an actual loud dynamic, thereby retaining a sense of mystery for this slow introduction.

The louder passages in the opening movements of both works demonstrate the extraordinary facility the Nash Ensemble has for presenting chamber music as chamber music. Brahms cranks up the tension, and the volume, but the players never let the musicís intimacy suffer. All the passion is there, but there is never any danger excess. Surprise dynamic jumps in the finale of the Clarinet Trio are another case in point; each sF jumps out of the texture, but never to the extent of disrupting the musicís lyrical continuity.

Fine balance and close communication between the players also characterise the Nash Ensembleís reading of the Second Piano Quartet. So there is never any danger of the piano competing with the strings. As in the Clarinet Trio, the roundness of the piano tone really helps it to integrate into the texture of the other instruments. And yet despite that integration, the sound of each of the instruments is always clearly audible. Iím particularly impressed by the sound of the cello in the mix. Itís not a particularly bottom-heavy balance, but the cello really sings.

Perhaps these performances are a little too sophisticated? Is there enough rustic charm in the scherzos? Enough drama to engage in the Allegros? Well, from where Iím sitting they gauge it just right. True enough, I would probably be just as content with a reading that was a little more boisterous, provided it retained the same balance and ensemble. But, as I say, this is chamber music played as chamber music. Intimacy and immediacy are the guiding principles here, from the communication between the players to the clarity and warmth of the sound engineering.

Gavin Dixon

The Nash gauge it just right ... see Full Review

BLIND REVIEW
The reviewer had no information other than the titles of the works

Brahms Clarinet Trio in A minor Op. 114 & Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major Op. 26

Problems of balance for performers and recording engineers abound in Brahmsí chamber music with piano so that I approached this disc with some caution. In the event this was wholly unnecessary as in both works what you see in the score is what you hear, without recourse to the usually needed powers of imagination in more heavily scored passages. This is an essential prerequisite for any satisfactory performance of either work and both performances pass this test with ease.

The Clarinet Trio is perhaps slightly the less satisfactory of the two performances in this respect, with all three instruments fairly closely balanced, the clarinet marginally too prominent and the cello somewhat set back. This is however by no means sufficient to spoil enjoyment, simply to point out that it sounds at times as though the listener is in the room with the players with the clarinetist close by, the cellist further away and the piano lid closed. This is probably a wholly inaccurate description of the arrangement in the recording studio but it is the way the results sounds to me. The sound in general is warm but intimate, both clarinet and cello having a warm tone without exaggerated vibrato. It is surely due to the players rather than the engineers that the performance is not over-projected as it might be in a large concert hall. It sounds as though the players are playing to and with each other for sheer pleasure rather than making points to an audience. Speeds throughout are well chosen with a delightful lilt to the trio of the third movement. They are not inflexible but neither are they varied in a self indulgent manner. All in all the performance catches the autumnal feeling of the music without ever wallowing in it.

The recording of the earlier Piano Quartet is somewhat shallower than that of the Trio but this suits the more classical feeling of both the work and the performance. There is no sense that ff passages, for instance in the development section of the first movement, are being held back Again the balance works very well with all four instruments being heard clearly and without confusion Ė no mean feat in this work. Although phrasing is idiomatic and never self-consciously restrained there is a delightfully understated feeling for much of the time. Rhythms are allowed to bounce where called for, and speeds are not too fast to allow the music to breathe. The coda to the first movement is played with great beauty, and there are magical half-tones in the last movement. I could go on like this, but essentially this is an impressive and enjoyable performance of a work too little played in public and therefore more welcome on record.

I have no idea who the performers are in either work or when they were recorded (although I suspect that the Quartet is the older recording) but both recordings are clearly by players and engineers who grasp the essential qualities and needs of the works in hand.

John Sheppard