Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51 No. 1 [33:52]
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51 No. 2 [36:13]
In stiller Nacht, Deutsche Volkslieder No. 8, WoO 34 [2:35]
Cuarteto Quiroga (Aitor Hevia – violin, Cibrán Sierra – violin, Josep Puchades – viola, Helena Poggio – cello)
rec. Westvest90 Church, Schiedam, The Netherlands, 17-19 December 2014
Booklet in English and Spanish

I wasn’t expecting this. Having reviewed a number of Brahms CDs lately, I didn’t particularly relish another one, and of his string quartets which I’ve probably found the least engaging of his chamber works. “Where’s the pianist?” I ask myself, drawn as I am to his piano trios, quartets and quintet. Over time I’ve armed myself with the Alban Berg Quartett’s EMI set of the Op. 51 and Op. 67 quartets, and the Budapest Quartet’s 1963 take on the first Op. 51. Top-drawer versions, allegedly, but the discs have largely sat unspun.

All it took was 15 seconds of the Madrid-based Cuarteto Quiroga’s Op. 51 No. 1 to change my mind about these quartets, forever I think. In that first 15 seconds several things registered: superb dynamics, faultless balance and intonation, visceral energy and – passion! Was I being duped by the stunning recorded sound? Tried it on my tinny PC speakers – no, still hooked. Was I being beguiled by ‘Brahms on steroids’? Listened on – no, definitely not. As the Allegro unfolds, there’s not only playing of breathtaking beauty and rapport, but a palpable grasp of the work’s structure, its meaning and its soul. This after all was Brahms’ hard-won entry into a genre where Beethoven, it was believed, had set the pinnacle. What this performance brings resoundingly into relief is how successfully Brahms seized and defined the new direction, which would eventually lead to the avant-garde of the Second Viennese School. Following their ardent opening, the Cuarteto Quiroga deliver the middle movements with the utmost delicacy and refinement, the lilting conclusion of the Allegretto a model of elegance and élan. Then as we’re swept triumphantly home with the final Allegro, they remind us again that theirs is not only a masterful reading, but one full of freshness and joy.

The second quartet, uncharacteristically for Brahms, immediately followed the first, sharing as it does the same year of publication (1873) as well as the same opus number. This is the quartet in which Brahms uses his motto frei aber einsam (free but lonely) as the musical notes F-A-E in the opening phrase of the first movement, and repeated in some form throughout the work. The motto is also used as a subtitle and narrative thread for the liner notes of this CD. The A minor quartet is more inward-looking than its predecessor, perhaps the F-A-E influence, but rewards concentrated listening, especially when played as commandingly as it is here by the Cuarteto Quiroga. Again they find the work’s core through their grasp of structure, attention to detail, range of sensibilities, and expression of the music’s contrasts. Integrity and tension are superbly maintained throughout; internal rhythms astutely observed, accents beautifully weighted, and all couched in full, warm and generous tone. As a brief bonus (not mentioned on the outer packaging) the Cuarteto Quiroga provide a Brahms arrangement of a traditional German song, In stiller Nacht, sounding rather akin to a harmonium.

In short, I don’t think you’ll hear better Brahms string quartet playing than this – or for that matter better string quartet recording. On a technical level, perhaps, there’s little to separate the Cuarteto Quiroga from the Alban Berg Quartett in both works, but the latter’s performances strike me as clinical and a bit glossy, which may partly explain my previous indifference. What the Cuarteto Quiroga bring to their performances is a level of musical communication that takes you to the heart of the composition, and the composer. I do hope they have a release of the Op. 67 quartet planned, maybe with the piano quintet. Now that would be something.

Des Hutchinson

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