Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Brahms by Arrangement – Volume 1
String Quintet in F minor Op.34 (1862) (Conjectural reconstruction in 2006 by Anssi KARTTUNEN (b.1960)) [41:07]
String Quintet in B minor Op.115 (1894) (Version for double viola quintet by the composer) [36:25]
Zebra String Trio (Ernst Kovacic (violin); Steven Dann (viola); Anssi Karttunen (cello)); Krysia Osostowicz (violin II); Richard Lester (cello II) (Op.34 Quintet); James Boyd (viola II) (Op.115 Quintet)
rec. The Music Room, Champs Hill, Coldwaltham, Pulborough, England, 1-2 October 2011
This is the kind of disc that makes the most jaded listener sit up straight and pay attention: marvellous music, compellingly performed and beautifully produced. Record companies must spend ever-increasing effort trying to unearth repertoire that is both rare and important. The musical treasure-hunters at Toccata can give themselves a pat on the back: they have hit musical gold with this disc.
How wonderful to be able to listen with completely fresh ears to two of Brahms’ greatest chamber works. Personally, I had no idea that either the Piano Quintet Op.34 or the heart-breakingly beautiful Clarinet Quintet Op.115 existed in any other – legitimate – versions yet that is precisely what we have here. The history of the work we know as the Piano Quintet in F minor Op.34 is rather convoluted. It started out as a double cello quintet as reconstructed here. The unsure Brahms sought Joachim’s opinion but first reworked it as a double piano sonata – in which form it was published – before finally arriving at the piano quintet version we know today. The original version was destroyed by its hard-to-please composer so the reconstruction here by Anssi Karttunen, cellist in the Zebra String Trio, is conjectural. His is not the first attempt to allow this piece to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of its composer’s insecurities: Sebastian Brown published a version in 1947 but this is the first recording of Karttunen’s version. Malcolm MacDonald provides an excellent essay – the term liner note simply does not do it justice – outlining the genesis and structure of both works. He makes the key point that Brahms in the 1860s was very much in the thrall of Schubert’s chamber masterpieces and the great double cello quintet in particular. Listening to both versions of the quintet you can understand why Brahms felt compelled to ‘expand’ the instrumentation and use a piano to add contrast and weight to a piece that is so big both in terms of structure and aspiration. Conversely it is wonderful to hear this music using one single family of instruments. This allows for an equality of timbre and texture that somehow allows the structure and musical material to be more instantly apparent. Add to that a group of performers of the highest technical and musical standing and you are in for a performance that is as pleasurable as it is revelatory. I had not heard of the Zebra string trio as an ensemble but the players who make it up are well known. To their ranks are added some of Britain’s finest chamber players – very much a gathering of friends and kindred spirits I sense. The result is as exciting a disc of chamber music as I have heard this year.
Rather than being daunted by the ‘lack’ of a piano the players here fling themselves with extraordinary dynamism into the stormy world of the quintet. It is a performance that pays the occasional nod towards modern performance practice. Vibrato is pared away and textures are allowed to stand chillingly bare when required. This is allied to an approach willing to take musical and technical risks. There is a sense of spontaneity and thrusting energy that sweeps away momentary concerns of perfect ensemble or tuning in return for a tangible spirit of discovery and reinvention. Out of curiosity I compared a version of the piano quintet which I enjoy a lot – the Nash Ensemble on CRD. Theirs is a pleasingly traditional approach and very well played too but in the expanded Zebra Trio’s hands it appears as a more modern and questing work.
If the performance of the piano quintet challenges preconceptions then the performance of the clarinet quintet in the composer’s own version for double viola quintet is simply a great performance regardless of version or instrumentation. Whereas the earlier work required of the transcriber complex revoicings and redistribution of the musical material the Clarinet Quintet simply alters the wind part to lie more conveniently for stringed instruments. This has always been one of my very favourite works by Brahms – the fires of the earlier quintet have dimmed and where previously passions blazed now they are expressed with a far gentler range of elegiac emotions. The homogeneity of the string sound which was interesting in the Op.34 quintet is even more effective here. There is a remarkable grace and unaffected beauty to the playing here that is simply superb. All the players contribute to this for sure but special praise must go to the lead viola playing of Steven Dann. This is without some of the finest viola playing I have heard in a long long time. The mechanics of the instrument mean that it is technically very hard to produce on that instrument the kind of sweet unforced lyricism that is second nature to the violin or even the cello. Yet, given where the tessitura of this part lies that is exactly what is required of the player. Dann is able to make his instrument sing with such gentle purity that I find myself struggling for adjectives or superlatives to do it justice. Although I absolutely adore the original ‘proper’ version the substitution of a string instrument – in the right hands! – suddenly brings secondary expressive benefits. The viola has two technical tools in its armoury not available to a clarinettist; vibrato and portamenti. All of the players make subtle and judicious use of vibrato in particular but Dann’s playing is a master-class in its full expressive potential. Some may prefer the chaste purity of a clarinet. Personally I do not feel anyone has bettered the now-venerable recording from Alfred Boskovsky and members of the Vienna Octet on Decca. Dann’s performance, regardless of the medium is right up there with the finest of the fine. Without any sense of affectation or over-phrasing Dann plays with a subtle sense of rhythmic elasticity that I find entrancing. Another side-benefit of the all-string ensemble is that issues of balance and integration are largely self-solving. As with the Op.34 the structural integrity of the work is revealed. This will never replace the original version of this true masterpiece and neither should it. Conversely I would be very surprised if this did not appear in more concert programmes. It seems like an obvious companion to the quintets by Mozart et al with the cost benefit to promoters of not requiring an additional player for a single piece.
Huge credit to Toccata Classics for instigating this disc. For a relatively small company they have one of the most interesting and challenging release schedules – the two volumes of Havergal Brian Orchestral works are my personal favourites among many. As mentioned before this is a very fine release on production terms as well. The Music Room at Champs Hill is proving to be a popular and successful recording venue. Once again Michael Ponder as both engineer and producer has recorded a disc of demonstration quality. I suspect as a fine viola player himself he enjoyed sitting in the control room listening to the music-making in the hall. Even the type of paper used for the liner is of high quality! If the future of classical recorded music is in as much jeopardy as some would have you believe than it is dependent upon those who produce new material to ensure that quality of the product made is such that quibbles regarding format, price and content fall away. Toccata Classics deserve every jot of financial and artistic success they get from this release; to my mind it is of award-winning calibre. Excitingly, it is called “Volume 1” and the MacDonald essay refers to the similar transcription Brahms did to his Clarinet Trio which is promised for Volume 2. I have not heard all of the other version of the Op.115 released in January 2011 by violist Maxim Rysanov on the Onyx label. That is intelligently coupled with the ‘proper’ Op.111 quintet as well as two songs for voice, piano and viola Op.91. What I have heard leads me to think Rysanov prefers a more romanticised interventionist approach. This disc is a near-certainty for my discs of the year list and one to which I will be returning often and with pleasure once the reviewer’s pen is put to one side.
Nick Barnard
Huge credit to Toccata Classics for instigating this disc.