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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quintet No. 1 in F major, Op. 88 [26:47]
String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111 [30:10]
Takács Quartet; Lawrence Power (viola)
rec. 19-22 May 2013, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth
HYPERION CDA67900 [56:58]

The Brahms’ String Quintets have, in a sense, been relegated to back boiler compared to the rest of his chamber works. They’re infrequently programmed in concert and less recorded in the studio. I’ve never understood why. For me, the G major Quintet, Op. 111 is one of his finest compositions. The quintets were composed eight years apart and they follow the Mozartean rather than the Schubertian model, employing two violas rather than cellos. In this way Brahms allowed himself 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 where they left off. He was so conscious of the high standards set by his predecessors that he destroyed many of his early string quartets.

Op. 88 was composed in Ischl near Salzburg, where Brahms spent ten of his summers. He had the habit of disparaging his own compositions on many occasions, yet with this work he wrote to his publisher Simrock ‘you have never before had such a beautiful work from me’. To his friend Clara Schumann, he praised it in glowing terms.

It was Joachim in 1890, the dedicatee of the Violin Concerto, who urged the composer to write a companion to go with the F major. By this time, Brahms had been seriously contemplating retiring, experiencing ‘burn-out’. 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.’ At the time, the G major Quintet was to be his farewell to composition. This was not to be and, over the next seven years before his death in 1897, he composed the Clarinet Trio and Quintet, the Opp. 116-119 piano pieces and the two Clarinet sonatas. Opus 111, like the earlier work, 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.
Etched in a gentler vein than its companion, this Op. 88 is fresh-sounding, lyrical and heartfelt. After a couple of hearings, I felt that this was music-making on the wing, such is the sense of spontaneity. Each player has his moment in the sun, but there’s no domination on the part of one instrumentalist. I get the feeling they’ve lived with these works for a while. Inspiration and technical excellence mark this out as a convincing performance.
Thick string textures can present problems in the opening movement of the G major. Joachim, on first acquaintance with the score thought the opening too orchestral, with the tremolos of the upper strings threatening to drown out the exuberant soaring melody of the solo cello. Brahms was not to be moved. It was a case of composer knows best; he was determined that the opening should stand as it is, knowing the effect he wanted to achieve.
It has to be one of the most impressive openings in all chamber music. If you can pull this off the battle’s half won. The Takács are punchy and arresting with them finding exactly the right mood to convey the tension/relaxation of the drama. In contrast, the Adagio which follows is veiled in melancholy and darkness, conjuring up a world of shadows. A light, delicate Allegretto comes next with a hint of wistfulness. In the finale, the Takács Quartet capture the jaunty, buoyant mood enhancing it with a taste of swagger.
Lawrence Power, who I greatly admire, is an excellent choice for additional viola and blends well. The warm airy acoustic of the Concert Hall, Wyastone confers an intimacy which is ideal. The sometimes dense writing of Op. 111 can be revealed in all its detail. Francis Potts provides scholarly notes in English, translated into French and German. Once again Hyperion have come up with another winner.
Stephen Greenbank