Samples & Downloads
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet in b minor, Op.115 [38:23]
Piano Quintet in f minor, Op34 [40:45]
Jon Nakamatsu (piano); Jon Manasse (clarinet)
Tokyo String Quartet (Martin Beaver, Kikuei Ikeda (violins), Kazuhide
Isomura (viola), Clive Greensmith (cello))
rec. Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Indiana, USA, November
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU807558
[A version of this review has already appeared in my Download
News 2012/21 - here.]
Two works from opposite ends of Brahms’ career in performances
which face very strong competition, though the best of the opposition
is otherwise coupled. Some of the strongest opposition comes
from the Hyperion stable, whence I’ve chosen as my benchmarks:
- CDA66107 Clarinet Quintet and Trio: Thea King and the Gabrieli
Quartet - CD and download (mp3 and lossless) from hyperion-records.co.uk.
This recording of the Clarinet Quintet is also included in a
box set with Brahms’ other chamber music, CDS44331/42
- CDA67551 Piano Quintet and String Quartet, Op.51/2: Stephen
Hough and the Takács Quartet - CD and download (mp3 and
lossless) from hyperion-records.co.uk.
Top 30 Roundup.
On matters of overall tempo for each movement of the Clarinet
Quintet the Harmonia Mundi and Hyperion performers are very
largely in agreement. Jon Manasse, the clarinettist on the new
recording has recorded the two Brahms Clarinet Sonatas for Harmonia
Mundi (907430). William Kreindler - review
- thought the playing more mellow than dynamic and the same
is true of the Clarinet Quintet. As in the sonatas, there will
be many who prefer mellow to dynamic in this work that’s
often seen as the product of the composer’s Indian Summer,
but I think it’s possible to have both and that Thea King
comes closer to that ideal.
It’s something of an issue that will probably always divide
opinion on performances of Brahms. It recurs at its most acute
in the case of the Violin Concerto, the first movement of which
is almost always taken at a sedate pace and with mellow tone.
That’s fine if it works for you, but if you’ve ever
heard the classic Jascha Heifetz recording with Fritz Reiner,
still available in different couplings from RCA/BMG, you’ll
know that a faster tempo than usual works well and avoids the
impression that the concerto has two slow movements.
So it is with the Clarinet Quintet. King and the Gabrielis are
a mere six seconds faster in the opening allegro but
they push the pace harder, without forcing it, and sound more
dynamic. There are moments when storm clouds threaten as opposed
to the autumnal landscape which Manasse and the Tokyo Quartet
depict. I would choose the Hyperion performance by a small margin
but I can appreciate that for many listeners the boot would
be on the other foot.
If you want mellow, King and the Gabrielis give you that in
the andante - they even take a few second longer to deliver
it. Both recordings are good but my impression is that the Hyperion
performers are a little more ‘present’ than those
on the new recording.
In the two remaining movements dynamic is to the fore again
on Hyperion, without losing sight of the music’s autumnal
qualities. I see that Jens F Laurson, reviewing the multi-CD
Hyperion box set was as impressed by this recording as I am
It’s Thea King and the Gabrieli Quartet as my overall
choice, then, at least equally logically coupled with the Clarinet
Trio as with the Piano Quintet on the new Harmonia Mundi. The
Trio may not be quite on the same masterpiece level as either
of the quintets, but it’s well worth hearing in this fine
performance, as you might expect of works which share adjacent
opus numbers. If you want the Thea King/Gabrieli Quartet version
of the Quintet without the Trio, that multi-CD Hyperion box
set of Brahms’ chamber music is well worth considering.
It contains another fine recording of the Trio with Richard
Hosford and members of the Florestan Trio, plus a recording
of the alternative with viola, and it’s a notable bargain
at £80 or less (£57 as a download from hyperion-records.co.uk).
The issue is less clear cut in considering the Piano Quintet.
As with the Clarinet Quintet, the Harmonia Mundi and Hyperion
performances vary little from each other in terms of the overall
tempo for each movement: the widest difference is to be found
in the opening allegro non troppo and it amounts to just
41 seconds out of a total time of almost 15 minutes. This time
there’s little temptation to make the music sound autumnal,
though there are opportunities to caress it, even in that first
movement, and both sets of performers blend the youthful force
of the music with those more loveable moments, with the Tokyo
Quartet emphasising the softer edges a little more.
If you choose the Takács Quartet version of the Piano
Quintet, you may well find yourself tempted by the quality of
their coupled performance of the Op.51/2 String Quartet to snap
up their recording of the other two other quartets as well -
I couldn’t resist squeezing both discs in and cheating
by counting them as one in my Hyperion
Top 30 Roundup.
Incidentally, fans of the Takács Quartet should be aware
that Hyperion have just released their new recording of Schubert’s
sublime C major String Quintet, with Ralph Kirshbaum (cello),
coupled with the Quartettsatz on CDA67864 - my first
impressions are to place this at or near the top of the pile
of available recordings, especially if you prefer a less overtly
emotional performance than usual.
Bargain hunters, especially those without recordings of the
Brahms String Quartets or the Schumann Piano Quintet should
be aware of two fine recordings which fall into that category:-
- Brahms String Quartets, Op.51/1-3 and Piano Quintet - Hyperion
CDD22018 (2-for-1): Piers Lane and the New Budapest Quartet
(download only for £7.99 from hyperion-records.co.uk,
mp3 or lossless; also available as part of the multi-CD box
CDS44331/42 - review.)
- Brahms Piano Quintet and Schumann Piano Quintet - Naxos 8.550406:
Jenö Jandó and the Kodaly Quartet
The new recording comes in hybrid SACD format whereas the Hyperions
are in ‘ordinary’ CD or its lossless flac equivalent
as downloads. On a level playing field, listening to the Harmonia
Mundi on a CD player as many listeners will do, the sound is
natural and well balanced; it’s credible without trying
in any way to be spectacular. If anything the Hyperion has a
touch more presence, which helps the performance to sound more
immediate and lively. The SACD stereo layer brings a touch more
presence to the new recording without quite achieving the immediacy
of the Hyperion.
The informative and lavishly illustrated booklet is almost too
large to slot back into the CD case; it’s a good ‘fault’
and one which it shares with the Hyperion Piano Quintet, but
it might have been easier if Harmonia Mundi had adopted the
round-shouldered cases which have become common for SACDs and
where the booklet is easier to get back in situ. Alternatively
they could have repeated their strategy of packing the booklet
not in the plastic case but alongside that case in the cardboard
wrapper as they did with their recent Christopher Gibbons SACD,
though that brings its own problems, too. (807551: Recording
of the Month - review).
The new recording of the Piano Quintet offers a strong challenge
to my Hyperion benchmark, then, and though my ultimate preference
for the Clarinet Quintet rests with Thea King and the Gabrieli
Quartet many will enjoy the autumnal blandishments of the new