BARGAIN OF THE MONTH
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quintet No. 1 in F major, Op. 88 (1882) [28:22]
String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111 (1890) [29:37]
The Raphael Ensemble (Anthony Marwood, Elizabeth Wexler (violins); Timothy Boulton, James Boyd (violas); Andrea Hess (cello))
rec. St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, UK, 18-20 April 1995. DDD
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55369 [58:07]
Brahms’ two string quintets, which he composed later in life, are arguably his greatest achievements for strings alone. They are very rich in themes and are masterfully constructed; neither contains a dull moment. His famous Piano Quintet, Op. 34, composed much earlier, also began life as a string quintet - though with an extra cello rather than viola - before becoming a work for two pianos and finally in the form it is most often performed today. The later string quintets are modelled on those by Mozart with the extra viola rather than Schubert’s C major with its added cello. It’s strange that such glorious works as these by Brahms are not recorded more often. Part of the reason may be that tuning can be a problem with these quintets.
My introduction to them was with the recording made by the Budapest String Quartet and Walter Trampler, viola, back in the 1950s or early 1960s. I have that one on LP. Since then I purchased the Sony CD of the Juilliard Quartet also with Trampler that was recorded in the same year as the one I am reviewing here. I always loved the Budapest account, but could never warm to the Juilliard’s largely because of the suspect tuning. The culprit here, it seems to me, was the violist. He was famous as a chamber musician, but by 1995 I fear he had lost his ability to play in tune, or his vibrato had grown to the degree that he sounds out of tune a fair amount of the time. He did not seem nearly as well matched as he had earlier with the Budapest. At any rate, I could never stand to listen to that recording for very long. It just didn’t measure up to my expectations based on my fondness for the Budapest record. With the Raphael Ensemble I can now enjoy these great works as I used to and their tuning seems fine to me.
Originally issued on a full-price Hyperion CD, this Helios reissue is welcome indeed. From the joyful first movement, through the slow movement with its two lighter interludes and the high-spirited finale, the Op. 88 receives a beautifully heartfelt performance that is as well played as I have heard it. For example, listen to the passage near the end of the slow movement, beginning at around 9:08 for aching lyricism that is so typically Brahmsian and so poignantly projected here. Then contrast this with the fugal finale that really dances and sings. The Op. 111 work is no less remarkable in its more traditional four movements. Special mention should be made of the first movement’s second subject with its paired violas from 1:15-1:50 and repeated later in the exposition and then again in the recapitulation, one of those ineffable themes that melts the heart and is so typical of Brahms especially in his late works. Likewise, the third movement Un poco allegretto, which is reminiscent of its equivalent in the Symphony No. 3, receives sensitive treatment here that perfectly captures its wistful spirit. The finale, like that of the earlier quintet, contains the dance element, even if it is more subdued than that of Op. 88. All of the various moods of both quintets are as well captured here as one could hope for.
Even though the disc is budget priced, there is nothing whatsoever parsimonious about its presentation from the cover art to the very thorough and insightful notes that describe both quintets in considerable detail. If you do not know these wonderful works or in the market for a recording of them, I can think of no better option than this brilliantly performed and recorded one by the Raphael.
The Raphael Ensemble provides the best option for these quintets.