RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quintet No. 1 in F major, Op.88 [25:41]1
String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111 [26:42]2
Uppsala Chamber Soloists
rec. Kulturhuset i Ytterjarna, 9-11 Sept 2011 (1); 4-5 June 2012 (2)
DAPHNE 1045 [52:26]
I have always felt that Brahms’ String Quintets have been the poor relations in the company of the rest of his chamber works. They certainly seem to be programmed and recorded less. Why this is so eludes me as they are both very fine works. Furthermore, the G major Quintet, Op. 111 I consider one of his greatest works. Composed eight years apart they follow the Mozartian rather than the Schubertian model, employing two violas rather than cellos. In this way, there was greater scope to endow the first viola part with more solo writing. He greatly admired the chamber music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert and felt that it was his mission to carry on from where they left off. Perhaps it is significant that he was so conscious of the high standards set by his predecessors that he destroyed many of his early string quartets.
The first quintet in F major, Op. 88 was composed in Ischl near Salzburg, where Brahms spent ten of his summers. Despite being in the habit of disparaging his own compositions on many occasions, the quintet had him writing to his publisher Simrock ‘you have never before had such a beautiful work from me’ and to his friend Clara Schumann, he also sang its praises.
In 1890 Joachim, the great violinist and dedicatee of Brahms’ violin Concerto, urged the composer to write a companion quintet to go with the F major. By this time, Brahms had been seriously contemplating ‘retiring’, feeling that his creativity was drying-up. To his friend Eusebius Mandyczewski, he expressed his concerns and disillusion: ‘I’ve been tormenting myself for a long time with all kinds of things … and nothing will come of it … it’s not going the way it used to. I’m just not going to do any more.’ Certainly, the completion of the G major Quintet, he regarded as his farewell to composition. Fortunately this was not to be and, over the next seven years before his death in 1897, he composed, amongst other things, the Clarinet trio and Quintet, the Opp. 116-119 piano pieces and the two Clarinet sonatas. Like the earlier work, the G major Quintet was also composed in Ischl and given its premiere by the Rose Quartet. Being on a larger scale with four movements (the F major has three), the work displays virtuosic string writing, outshining any of his other chamber works. Perhaps his confidence was buoyed up by the successful instrumental writing of the Double Concerto, composed three years before, in 1887.
From the opening bars of Op. 88 the Uppsala Chamber Soloists show a great affinity for this music. The beautiful first subject is warm, tender and expressive. Tempi are well judged and phrasing and dynamics are such that the drama is allowed to unfold in a natural way. The second movement is unusual in that Brahms divides it into three contrasting sections. In the first section which is marked Grave, the Uppsala players capture the reflective, wistful quality of the melody. Their beauty of tone is second to none. The allegretto and presto sections are light and playful and provide an effective contrast. The finale is invigorating and ebullient.
The highlight of this disc is the G major Quintet Op. 111, for the simple fact that it is one of my favorite chamber works. Having several versions, I did a head-to-head to compare the different performances in my collection. The opening of the Quintet is breathtaking in its exuberance. Joachim, when he first saw the score, saw the opening as too orchestral, with the tremolos of the upper strings threatening to drown out the wonderful soaring melody of the solo cello. Brahms was determined that the opening should stand as it is, knowing the effect he wanted to achieve. The Berlin Philharmonic players on Philips (446172) nearly drown out the poor cellist. Their overall performance seems to me uninspiring. The Melos Quartet with Gérard Caussé (viola) on Harmonia Mundi (901349) perform only the G major Quintet. As a whole the sound throughout is slightly congested and lacks the clarity accorded to the Uppsala players. The Amadeus (DG 474358) inexplicably omit the first movement exposition repeat which Brahms specifies. The Raphael Ensemble (Hyperion CDH 55369) have provided the ideal recording and one which I have returned to many times. I did not think they could be bettered; that is until now. The Uppsala players definitely outshine them and have dislodged them from their pedestal. The sound here is brighter and more immediate. This allows the sometimes thick instrumental textures to emerge with great clarity and definition. Everything seems just right. Tempi, dynamics and phrasing are well judged. Intonation and ensemble marks the performances out with distinction.
The acoustic of the Kulturhuset i Ytterjarna is warm and sympathetic. Booklet notes are comprehensive in English, German and Swedish. Perhaps the String Quartets and Sextets in the future - who knows?
Benchmark recordings of the two Brahms’ String Quintets from Sweden.
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