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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 (1865) [41:00]
String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, No.1 (1873) [31:03]
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51, No.2 (1873) [33:46]
String Quartet No. 3 in B flat major, Op. 67 (1875) [34:18]
Gringolts String Quartet (Ilya Gringolts (violin); Anahit Kurtikyan (violin); Silvia Simionescu (viola); Claudius Herrmann (cello)); Peter Laul (piano)
rec. June 2013, St. John Estonia Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg, Russia (Quartets); June 2013 St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg, Russia (Quintet)
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC 100042 [72:05 + 68:06]

I remain puzzled why these wonderful string quartets of Johannes Brahms have never received the regard enjoyed by his symphonies. Thankfully in recent decades they have becoming increasingly recorded but it’s pleasing to hear new recordings such as this release from the Zurich-based Gringolts String Quartet. Like a number of other releases the Gringolts have coupled the three string quartets with Brahms’s glorious Piano Quintet in F minor.
 
They open the set with the Piano Quintet, Op. 34 a staple of the standard repertoire which is, according to musicologist David Ewen, “one of the supreme achievements of chamber music.” This delightful and popular Quintet has a rather convoluted history, beginning life as the String Quintet in F minor. Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim pointed out deficiencies in the manuscript of the Quintet and Brahms, disenchanted and demoralised, abandoned the score stating “it will be better if it goes to sleep.” He reworked the material into a Sonata in F minor for two pianos and with the urging of Clara Schumann, returned to the music in 1864 to create his third and final version for Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34. The mighty opening Allegro non troppo possesses a serious character to which the Gringolts and Peter Laul contribute real tension. The players adopt speeds that seem far slower than my ideal and overall vivacity is lacking. The slow movement is a typical Brahmsian blend of bitter-sweet with the players infusing an appealing Schubertian character but generally I found the playing dull and measured. The Scherzo movement is often invigorating in the hands of the finest quintets who vary their tempi and accentuate wide dynamics. Here the playing feels restricted and lacking in freedom. In the complex and unrelenting final movement Brahms writes for a range of emotions with a headlong dash to the wire. No, this needs playing of additional energy and improved unity of ensemble.
 
Next the String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op.51/1 - a score Brahms dedicated to his friend Dr. Theodor Billroth of Vienna. The cautious Brahms agonised over this work and it is known that he made several attempts in the genre before presenting the C minor score. A common criticism is the disconcerting bleakness of the writing with too little emphasis placed on melody. I was interested in the viewpoint of the two biographers: Walter Frisch who described the score as “an intense, mostly dark work” and Ivor Keys stating “grittiness is certainly in evidence.” In the extended first movement Allegro the playing of Gringolts and Laul flows poorly and feels introverted, failing to underline episodes of great tenderness. The fractious quality and relative gloom of the Allegro is dispelled by Brahms in the warm lyricism of the Romanze however the players seem short on concentration giving an unconvincing interpretation that lacks depth of feeling. The moderately paced third movement fuses martial character with the whimsical yet I am disappointed by a performance lacking in tightness and cohesion. Containing unsettling music with undertones of hurt and anger the Allegro, Finale is performed without generating any significant drama or exuberance and the playing feels wanting in unison.
 
The String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op.51/2 is dense, yet appealing and places considerable emphasis on shifting moods. Composed around the same time as its predecessor the score again bears a dedication to Dr. Billroth. With the extended and rather technical opening Allegro the Gringolts fail to bring out that convincingly bitter-sweet quality. Its playing feels dull and leaden, deficient in the required spirit. There is an underlying pain and anguish in the sombre slow movement but the playing here is unconvincing and lacking in fluidity. The contrasting short Menuetto fails to convey sufficient brooding lyricism and the more upbeat passages want additional vigour. Again ensemble seems poor and at times I fear the music grinding to a halt. In the Finale I enjoy the two contrasting dance themes, one similar to a Hungarian stomp and the second lighter and gentler in the style of a Viennese waltz which feels a touch leaden here. Sadly the approach of the Gringolts doesn’t impress with some generally untidy and lacklustre playing as if not always pulling in the same direction.
 
The String Quartet No. 3 in B flat major, Op.67 was written in 1875 and bears a dedication to Brahms’s friend Professor Theodor Wilhelm Engelmann from the University of Utrecht. This good-humoured score makes for a marked contrast to the two earlier quartets. Biographer Frisch referred to it as “neo-classical in spirit, but ultra-sophisticated in its triumph.” In the agreeable opening movement, marked Vivace, the Gringolts is in a reasonably buoyant mood but its general lack of spirit fails to bring out the ideal amount of Brahmsian moodiness and occasional petulance. The level of serenity uncovered in the Andante, “a song without word” is reduced by its unpersuasive and tentative interpretation. In the disconcerting third movement Allegretto the lack of unity again raises its head. The Finale, a theme and variations having the character of the dance has the Gringolts seeming short of assurance and needing a lighter touch.
 
Overall I find this disappointing. It left me wondering about the amount of preparation time given to the project. Recorded in two locations in 2013 in St. Petersburg the sound quality is reasonably clear with a decent enough balance.
 
My primary recommendation in the Brahms three String Quartets and Piano Quintet is the Borodin Quartet who deliver sparkling and exceptional performances. They are joined in the Piano Quintet by Eliso Virsaladze. The Borodin was recorded at Snape Maltings, Suffolk in 1990 and the Teldec Studio Berlin in 1993 on Teldec. Next I value the delightful and expressive performances from the Emerson Quartet accompanied by Leon Fleisher in the Piano Quintet. The Emerson was recorded in 2005/07 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York on Deutsche Grammophon.
 
Michael Cookson