Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
String Quintet in F major WAB112 [42:58]
Intermezzo in D minor WAB113 [3:48]
Alberni String Quartet (Howard Davis (violin I); Peter Pople (violin II); Roger Best (viola); David Smith (cello))
Garfield Jackson (viola)
rec. 1990 in St. George the Martyr, Holborn, London, England
CRD 3456 [46:46]

Bruckner composed very little chamber music and what exists does not count as amongst his finest work. But interestingly, compared with Brahms, there is not the same impression of the music seeking to break its bounds into a full orchestral dimension, even though passages frequently sound like a sketch in short score for one of the Symphonies, or echo them on a smaller scale. Although composed in 1878-79 – between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies – it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the unsettling shifts in harmony which belie the graceful dance of the second movement Scherzo look as far ahead as the feverish Scherzo of the Ninth Symphony, as do the chromaticisms of the Trio to the Ninth’s equivalent. The glowing harmonies of the Adagio will call to mind the searing sonorities of the slow movements of the Seventh and Eight Symphonies, as well as the Cavatina of Beethoven’s Op. 130 String Quartet, whilst the more dynamic finale, building up a flustered head of steam over a static pedal figure mimics the parallel movement of the Fourth. In short, the work offers plenty for Brucknerians to spot comparisons and influences from the composer’s other work, and listeners unconvinced by those gargantuan orchestral statements might find this a more amenable entrance into that forbidding oeuvre.

In this re-issue from CRD, the Alberni Quartet give a generally lyrical and amiable reading of the work, heralded at the very outset by the dreamy, languid character of the first subject, and some sweet-toned playing from the strings, even from the violas who are often asked to play quite high in their range. Their manner works well in the more relaxed sections of the work, such as the first section of the opening movement, the elegant dance of the Scherzo, and the Gesangsperiode second subject of the finale.

But the Quartet remain rather too wedded to that approach and so fail to bring out the contrasts in the work’s edifice, which is constructed in a similar way as the Symphonies’ ‘cathedrals of sound’ for want of a better term. Hence there is lacking a more dramatic push forwards in the climactic sections – often clearly signalled as such by Bruckner with his unison passages striving upwards to a peak, such as in the exposition of the first movement. Admittedly Bruckner’s compositional method can be awkward, and the arpeggios of the finale’s coda are not entirely convincing, but the Albernis do also dissipate tension here, so the conclusion is not entirely satisfying in this performance. That is a shame after the intensity of feeling drawn out of the preceding Adagio even if, again, the contrasts between the blocks of music are not fully sculpted.

The Intermezzo included on this disc was a substitution by Bruckner for the original Scherzo when Josef Hellmesberger – who requested the work from the composer – found the latter too difficult. Both movements use the same Trio, and so that is omitted in this recording of the Intermezzo. The Albernis play this decorously, with a certain Viennese charm and observing the articulation of the contrasting sections perhaps better than in the other sections of the Quintet.

The Brandis Quartet on the Nimbus label offer a more competitive version with a greater sense of the work’s architecture, as do the Raphael Ensemble (review), but they have all now been overtaken by the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s recording for Linn Records (review), which offers a more searching, well-rounded interpretation of the work, as well as a more complete survey of Bruckner’s string chamber music in that it also offers the String Quartet.

Curtis Rogers

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