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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845–1924)
Piano Quartet No.1 in c minor, Op.15 (1876-79) [30:31]
Piano Quartet No.2 in g minor, Op.45 (c.1885-86) [34:17]
The Schubert Ensemble (Simon Blendis (violin), Douglas Paterson (viola), Jane Salmon (cello), William Howard (piano))
rec. St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 29-30 June 1998 (Quartet No.1) and 7-8 June 1999 (Quartet No.2)
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6296 [64:48]

This is wonderful, life-enhancing, intensely heart-felt music which should be in every collection, as should Fauré’s Piano Quintets, his Requiem and Piano Trio.

The Schubert Ensemble have already recorded the Piano Quintets (Chandos CHAN10576 – Download Roundup April 2010).  I was not alone in thinking that their recording came close to challenging the hegemony of Domus (Hyperion CDA66766), so I was particularly interested in seeing if their new recording of the Piano Quartets could also rival Domus in those works (Hyperion CDA30007, mid-price: also still, confusingly, available at full-price), especially as another Chandos release, which I reviewed in the same DL Roundup (CHAN10582, Kathryn Stott with the Hermitage String Trio) had come close to doing so.

If those two Chandos recordings fail quite to displace Domus it’s in not quite capturing the powerful emotion which Fauré displays; though it’s clear that The Schubert Ensemble are themselves passionate about the music, they just lack the last degree of Innigkeit on their recording of the quintets.

These Nimbus Alliance recordings predate the Chandos release (rec. 2009), having been set down in 1998 and 1999, but the performances share the qualities of those of the quintets, with assured and stylish playing.  If you want to hear them at their best try the wonderfully lyrical account of the finale of the first quartet.

The chosen tempi are generally very similar to those adopted by Domus except in the second movement of the first quartet and the third movement and finale of the second, where the Schubert Ensemble are rather slower in each case.

Domus are a little faster than most in the second movement of the first quartet at 5:08 – other recordings take a little longer: Kungsbacka Trio-plus (Naxos) 5:22, Trio Wanderer-plus (Harmonia Mundi) 5:26, Pro Arte Quintet (Australian Decca Eloquence) 5:31), Beaux Arts Trio-plus (Philips) 5:40.  Though the Schubert Ensemble at 5:33 are right in the middle of that range, I nevertheless feel that Domus capture the spirit of the allegro vivo marking more than the rest.  On the other hand the Schubert Ensemble give the music a lighter touch here and they never sound slow.

The consensus for the third movement of the second quartet is around 10:20 or slightly slower.  The Schubert Trio take 11:19 which, although it allows what Anthony Burton describes in the notes as a ‘murmuring figuration in the bass register of the piano … [reminiscent] of distant church bells’ to come through clearly in a manner which I find not unlike Vaughan Williams’ setting of ‘Bredon Hill’ (from On Wenlock Edge), the sense of momentum does suffer slightly.

From Domus the bells from the piano ring noticeably faster – joyful bells this time – but the violin and viola maintain the wistful mood and I think they capture the spirit of this movement better, observing both parts of the basic tempo marking adagio non troppo.  There’s no sense that Domus are rushing the music; the overall mood is expansive but not unduly slow in pace.

Another recording worth considering comes from Trio Wanderer with Antoine Tamestit on Harmonia Mundi HMC902032.  Reviewing a recording of the first quartet and Piano Trio on Naxos, Brian Reinhart mentioned the Harmonia Mundi as his gold standard – DL News 2013/18.  The tempi here are also very similar to those of Domus and the Schubert Ensemble except in the last two movements of the second quartet.

If the Schubert Ensemble come close to the ideal but are slightly lacking in capturing the last few ounces of magic in both quartets, Trio Wanderer-plus come closer. Not having heard these performances before, I streamed them from Qobuz and was very impressed.  The opening of the first quartet comes over with great intensity and that’s true throughout both works.  In the second movement of Quartet No.1 they strike a balance between the tempi adopted by Domus and the Schubert Ensemble.

If the Schubert Quartet are noticeably slower than the consensus in the third movement of the second quartet, Trio Wanderer-plus are significantly faster, yet without failing to suggest the expansive nature of this movement.  Though they take 9:50 against Domus’s 10:20 and the Schubert Trio’s 11:19, there’s no sense that they are rushing the music; if anything they sound a little more expansive than Domus.

The differences are less marked but still significant in the finale, with Domus fastest at 7:57, Trio Wanderer-plus at 8:07 and the Schubert Ensemble at 8:34.  The marking is allegro molto and at first sight 8:34 looks a tad slow.  In practice, however, there’s very little to choose in this movement, with all three producing convincing performances.

I can’t disagree with Peter Grahame Woolf’s description of the Schubert Ensemble’s performance of Piano Quartet No.2 in live performance at Blackheath in 2000 as ‘played boldly, with vivid contributions from every player’ – review.  Overall, however, I’m left as I was with their recording of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet and Piano Trio No.1 (Champs Hill CHRCD007 – review): it’s all very good but not quite up to the strong competition, in this case on Hyperion and Harmonia Mundi.

When the Harmonia Mundi recording was released one reviewer – not on MusicWeb International – criticised the recording quality, even complaining of lack of focus and some extraneous bumping noises, which I think must have emanated from a sub-standard review disc.  If I have a small criticism it’s that the recording makes the players sound a trifle too plush and places them rather upfront by comparison with the Hyperion and Nimbus Alliance.

The Nimbus Alliance recording was made at a venue, St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, much favoured by the BBC and recording companies for chamber music and it proves to have been a suitable location on this occasion.  The players are neither too close nor too distant; though they are fractionally less immediate than Domus or Trio Wanderer-plus, there’s not too much in it.

The notes in the booklet are by Anthony Burton and they are very good.  They are a little fuller than those by Stephen Johnson in the Hyperion booklet, though that is very fine, too.  I haven’t seen the Harmonia Mundi booklet – unusually, it doesn’t come with the streamed version from Qobuz.

I very much enjoyed hearing these performances. If I hadn’t had the two other performances for comparison I might well have given it top rating or something very close.  I certainly don’t wish to damn it with faint praise.  Should you decide to buy the CD you will have a pair of fine performances and recordings.  As usual, however, the best is the enemy of the very good and I shall still turn to Domus for these marvellous works: they give us even more of the magic and come at mid price on Hyperion’s 30th-anniversary collection.  Whichever you choose, you should also go for Domus’s recording of the two Piano Quintets.

Brian Wilson