Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor Op.25 (1861) [38:34]
Piano Quartet No.2 in A major Op 26 (1862) [32:59]
Piano Quartet No.3 in C minor Op.60 (1874) [45:30]
Derek Han (piano) Isabelle Faust (violin) Bruno Giuranna (viola) Alain Meunier (cello)
rec. 21-24 August 1996, Salle de la Fondation Tibor Varga, Sion, Switzerland. DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 93040 [71:55 + 43:50]
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.  

Ralph Moore 

Given the quality of what is otherwise available this is not really competitive.