Friedrich KUHLAU (1786-1832)
Piano Quartet No.1 in C minor Op.32 (1820-21) [33.54]
Piano Quartet No.2 in A major Op.50 (1831-32) [38.50]
Copenhagen Piano Quartet
rec. Royal Danish Academy of Music Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark, 4-5, 7-8 December 2013 (No.1), 5-7, 9 June 2014 (No.2)
SACD/CD Hybrid Surround 5.0 and Stereo
Reviewed in surround
DACAPO 6.220596 SACD [72.44]

Friedrich Kuhlau was a German by birth but took Danish citizenship in 1813. He is recognised as one of the key figures in the history of Danish music having brought to the country some of the new European trends. He is known in Denmark mainly for the incidental music to Heiberg's comedy Elverhøj (Marco Polo Dacapo 8.224053 or DCCD8902) but his list of compositions is quite long including operas, concertos, a string quartet, piano works and a large amount of flute music. His opera Lulu is well worth hearing and has been recorded complete by Michael Schønwandt on the Kontrapunkt label. Stylistically he can be described as similar to such as Cherubini, Weber, Schubert and even Schumann. With the exception of the latter this is hardly surprising for these were his contemporaries. The fact that his vocal works are in Danish must inevitably have limited their spread. Even in our cosmopolitan times Danish is spoken mostly only by Danes.

The comparative rarity of performances of these lovely Piano Quartets is a surprise however. They have been recorded before (1997), also by Marco Polo Dacapo (8224044-45) to get these new and extremely fine performances on such a splendid SACD is indeed a surprise and pleasure. The pleasure comes as much from the spectacularly fine Copenhagen Piano Quartet. This is their first recording but on the strength of this, it will not be their last. They mention on the entertaining YouTube promotional YouTube video that they spent an unusual amount of time preparing the performances for this recording. It was even necessary to prepare their own full score because only the solo parts were initially available. Being young students this seems to have been a lucky opportunity to combine a commercial exercise with their studies. What comes across is the absolutely top quality playing as well as a remarkably mature cohesion as a group. We have all heard young chamber music groups where the individuals are excellent but the group has not yet jelled. These four musicians are very much a group. They seem to have the mutual trust needed to play with individual passion. I thought this was a splendid achievement.

As to Kuhlau's quartets, they are recognisably of the period but have surprising touches of the later Schumann Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet about them: there is a strongly romantic feel to the slow movements for example. The faster movements have a rhythmic drive that would not have disgraced Schubert. One hears hints of Beethoven in the introduction to the First Quartet. He did in fact meet and briefly befriend Beethoven in 1825. The notes, curiously printed with the two quartets in reverse, the Second quartet is discussed first, describe in some detail the stages of these two quite extended pieces: they are about 34 and 39 minutes long respectively but never outstay their welcome. The fact that Kuhlau breaks no new ground is not a problem. What we have here are two pieces of very high quality music with melody and energy. The recordings are spacious and detailed with the piano placed behind the strings and with the ambience of the acoustically excellent, and rather beautiful, DKDM Concert Hall subtly present. 'What's not to like?' as they say. One hopes this group will record the Third Quartet to complete the set, with perhaps the Suk A minor Piano Quartet that is in their current repertoire.

Dave Billinge

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