The Milander Quartet is a fairly new ensemble, and this is their
début recording. Mind, you wouldn't know that to listen to it
- the four players are clearly finely attuned to each other's
artistic sensibilities, and the unity of intent here is astounding.
The big name in the ensemble is pianist Milana Chernyavska.
She is the driving force, it seems, but she's not one to hog
the limelight, and the four players sound like equal partners,
both in terms of their artistic input and their relative weight
in the recorded sound. That kind of democracy is what really
makes chamber music come alive, but it is all too rare on record,
especially with piano trios, quartets and quintets, where the
pianist's ego almost always sees them pushed to the front of
Brahms' Piano Quartets are filled with music of extremes, but
players don't do it any favours by playing it at face value.
Fortunately, then, the Milanders often take Brahms' tempo and
dynamic indications with a pinch of salt. The opening movement
of the First Quartet, for example, is marked Allegro, but the
notes themselves don't really bear that out. So the performance
here errs toward slower tempos, but retains enough flexibility
to build up some real intensity in the climaxes. And when Brahms
writes 'pp' or 'ff', as he does far more often than he ought,
the players have the sensibility to express these extremes through
timbre and texture rather than relying on sheer volume.
There are times when only excess will do. I'm thinking in particular
of the Gypsy dance that closes the First Quartet and the tempestuous
development of the Third Quartet first movement. However the
fact that the players save those extremes for when they are
really needed gives them all the more effect.
Despite the rigorous control exercised throughout, this doesn't
come across as an overly controlled performance. In fact, the
ensemble in the strings is occasionally slightly loose, as if
the players are emphasising passion over precision. It's not
a big problem, the ensemble, and they are the same problems
as you'll find on any recording; Brahms is asking for it really,
writing long, loud passages with the violin and viola in octaves
When the players perform as soloists, all thoughts of imprecision
evaporate. The cellist, Beni Santora, makes a fabulous job of
the solos in the first movement of the First Quartet, and the
quality of viola playing from Alexander Moshnenko is the equal
of the violin playing from Lisa Schatzman. That is another unusual
quality from a piano quartet, and it is a real asset here because
Brahms treats the two as equals.
The sound quality is excellent, and (as mentioned above) the
balance between the players is exceptional. The sound of the
piano is just wonderful. It’s a Steinway D and the sound of
its bass strings is rich, focused and very satisfying.
All round, this is an impressive reading of two of Brahms' greatest
chamber works. According to Avie, it is the first of a pair
covering the Brahms Piano Quartets. If the Second Quartet is
played and recorded to this standard, it will definitely be
worth hearing. That leaves the question of what the coupling
will be on volume 2, and my money is on the Piano Quintet. Those
two works are already over-exposed on CD, in a way that the
First and Third Quartets are not, so the Milanders were probably
wise to start here. A great recording and a very promising start
to what should be a glittering recording career for the ensemble.