Given the quality of what is otherwise available, this two
CD set, for all that it’s conveniently, economically and
attractively packaged, is not really competitive, either in
terms of recorded sound or performance. There is nothing especially
wrong with the playing here, but place it alongside the drive
and verve of the starry Ax-Stern-Laredo-Ma quartet or Murray
Perahia with three members of the Amadeus Quartet in Op.25,
both on Sony, and you will immediately hear the difference.
I have admired Derek Han’s pianism in his complete set
of Mozart Piano Concertos on this Brilliant label. Indeed he
is the most expressive and animated of the musicians in this
ad hoc ensemble. However, the recorded sound here, surprisingly
drab for such a recent digital engineering, robs his playing
of nuance, in that he is set too far back in a slightly boomy
acoustic which takes the edge off instrumental tone, dulls the
impact of his liquid runs and robs ensemble of crispness. Thus
the playing of both Ax and Perahia emerges as more trenchant.
The piano is not the only instrument to suffer from the mushy
sound: shortly into the first movement of the C minor quartet
there is a spooky little pizzicato rising octave phrase for
the violin which is virtually inaudible and thus goes for nothing.
Apart from the sound issue there is also the question of the
appropriate Brahmsian style. I must say straightaway that it
is the two more grim and tempestuous passages which suffer from
a lack of attack whereas the sunnier, more lyrical A major work
or the Andante of No.3 are far more successful. Both Op.25 and
Op.60 are full of strife and struggle, especially in their tragic
opening movements. The insistent four semi-quaver motif running
through No. 1 and constantly mutating through various related
keys is highly dramatic but the Han quartet seems unduly restrained
and at times even lethargic. They are again much happier, for
example in the flowing Andante of the second movement of Op.26.
Incidentally, no performers I know seem to take much notice
of Brahms’ broad tempo markings: an Allegro is as likely
to be Andante, as is the Poco Adagio of this movement; it’s
more a question of capturing the requisite mood.
There is also a tendency here to ignore the importance of dynamics;
too much is played at mezzo forte, although I would say that
this is much less apparent in Nos. 2 and 3. Indeed, the Han
quartet is more animated and able to assimilate the volatile
contrasts of No.2 than in the more famous G minor quartet. However,
there is a greater, richer vibrancy and sonority to the Ax and
Perahia Quartets when the lower strings are playing in unison
with the piano and they are clearly more “animato”
in their willingness to apply rubato and shape their phrasing
freely. They bring out more emphatically the Schubertian admixture
of melodic insouciance and tragic intensity. The “Zingarese”
last movement of Op.25 is almost tentative whereas we need the
wild abandon of the kind Ax and co give us in those syncopations.
Han is fleet but verging on dull. This issue of differentiation
is germane almost throughout the first two works so I won’t
belabour the point.
The music itself is so wonderful that even a slightly dutiful
performance affords the listener much pleasure. It is a distillation
of everything which characterises Brahms’s restless virility;
no wonder Schoenberg felt moved to orchestrate Op.25 as the
composer’s “Fifth Symphony”. It remains full
of surprises: I cannot be the first to hear a more than faint
echo of Elijah’s prayer “Lord God of Abraham”
in the gentle descending melody on the piano, then taken up
by the strings, at 2:16 in the Allegro of Op.60.
As these players seem to have come together solely for the purposes
of this recording and are not identified by any ensemble name,
this, in addition to the muddy sound, might explain the lack
of élan, some untidiness in bow strokes and a tendency
for the music to fail to “sing”.
The liner-notes are interesting and informative but there is
no biographical information about the artists.
This is by no means a poor set but the principle of the best
being the enemy of the good applies here.