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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet No.1 in C minor, Op.51 No.1 [34:20]
String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.51 No.2 [39:24]
String Quartet No.3 in B flat, Op.67 [36:34]
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34 [42:16]
Belcea Quartet
Till Fellner (piano)
rec. November 2014 (Quartet No.1), March 2015 (Quartet No.2), May 2015 (Quartet No.3), December 2015 (Piano Quintet), Britten Studio, Aldeburgh.
ALPHA 248 [73:44 + 78:50]

The one thing to take away from these recordings of the three Brahms string quartets is the deep sense of affection and human warmth which the Belcea Quartet brings to their performances. This is often animated and angst-laden music, seeming as if it is walking on an emotional tight-rope and frequently moving off into bouts of intensely anxious introspection. Indeed, the First Quartet opens with some of Brahms’s most agitated and nervously-charged writing. Certainly, this aspect of the music’s persona is powerfully brought out in these masterful performances, yet there is above it all an overarching sense of poise and spaciousness, nowhere more vividly revealed than in the First Quartet’s Allegretto molto moderato 3rd movement.

Perhaps this sense of warm humanity and generosity of spirit is most strongly communicated in the Second Quartet. This performance has a very leisurely and spacious quality; one of the clear benefits of the quartets having been recorded individually over several months, allowing the players to treat each one as a stand-alone work rather than attempting, consciously or otherwise, to draw links between them.

Brahms famously destroyed his early string quartets – he claimed that somewhere around 20 never survived his hyper-critical purge - and it was only with the two published in 1873 that he allowed his essays in this most elevated of instrumental genres to be presented in the public arena. They had obviously been started several years earlier, and the work Brahms put in to preparing them for their final version was clearly flavoured by the struggles he had to complete his First Symphony. There is clearly something distinctly symphonic about these two quartets, not least in the vast emotional ground they cover and the huge scope of their construction. Here are highly intelligent performances which present that vastness of scope particularly well and allow the music to unfold with a grandeur which is more suited to this music than the more intimate feel so many string quartets have previously brought to Brahms on disc. Rather than confining it, as it were, to a small cage, the Belceas do not let it roam totally free, but give it a very generous enclosure; there is a sense of tightness of control rather than of excessive restraint. I find particularly effective the feeling of fresh air and expansiveness they give to the rather elusive quasi minuetto and the truly invigorating playfulness they bring to the spiky Trio.

With the Third Quartet of 1875/6, the writing takes on a more intimate and chamber-like feel, with transparent textures and a much lighter use of the quartet medium. Again, because this was recorded at some distance in time from the others, the Belceas fully capture that quality in this excellent and at times deeply affecting performance.

But for me, the high point of this two-disc set is the intense and beautifully integrated account of the Piano Quintet. Here we have a true partnership of equals, with Tell Fellner fitting into the Belcea’s distinctive performing ethic like a hand into a glove, neither dominating nor being subservient, but a true and instinctive chamber partner. This is very vividly displayed in the opening of the slow movement where the piano seems to be such an integral part of the texture that the tendency we sometimes experience in this music for it to sound like a piano concerto with reduced orchestra seems to belong to an altogether different world. Here is a deeply rewarding performance.

Marc Rochester



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