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 2011. DSD.
HARMONIA MUNDI SACD HMU807558 [79:13]
[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 - review
- 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. See review and Hyperion 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 - review. 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 recording.
This version of the Piano Quintet is as good as any and that of the Clarinet Quintet will appeal to those who stress its autumnal qualities.