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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet No 1 in C minor, Op, 51 No 1 (1873) [34:00]
String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op, 51 No 2 (1873) [35:27]
New Orford String Quartet
rec. May 2013, Multi-Media Room, Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
BRIDGE 9464 [69:39]

Brahms published his two string quartets together in 1873 though, as Brian Manker, the New Orford’s cellist, points out in his notes, both works had a lengthy gestation period. In this regard one thinks, inevitably, of the First Symphony which similarly took quite some time to come into being. There was to be one more quartet, two years later, but though Brahms continued to compose chamber music for most of the rest of his life he never returned to the quartet form thereafter. In that respect there’s something of a parallel with his piano sonatas. All three date from early on in his career, between 1852 and 1853, and after that despite composing an extensive piano literature Brahms never returned to the solo sonata. Perhaps in both cases he felt he had said all he wished to say in that particular genre.

One wonders how these two quartets took shape relative to each other. Brian Manker rightly describes the First Quartet as “compact, nervous and restless” and when you hear the two Op 51 works together the Second seems the more settled in character. Yet Manker suspects that the A minor quartet may derive from earlier material than its companion work.

The description of the First Quartet - “compact, nervous and restless” – seems right on the money to me, especially when applied to the first movement. There’s much urgency in the New Orford’s playing, though on the occasions when the music relaxes – around 2:30, for example, or just before the coda – the contrast of temperament is well made. However, the primary impression from this performance is edge and tension and I think that’s appropriate. It’s surely not without significance that the home key of this quartet is the same that Brahms used for his First Symphony and Beethoven for his Fifth.

I like the veiled quality in the playing at the start of the Romanze, Poco adagio. The hesitant rhythmic figures prevent the thematic lines from settling into anything resembling Brahmsian warmth. Here the playing is expertly controlled. I got a sense that Brahms is reaching for something that’s not yet quite within his grasp. The third movement, too, seems unsettled. The finale, an Allegro, is bolder in nature at the outset and in this movement the tone of the music is stronger than elsewhere. The New Orfords show an urgency that’s comparable with what they delivered in the first movement, giving a robust performance.

If the First Quartet is a piece that, in Brian Manker’s words, “borders on the experimental” the Second seems overall to be more settled. The music in the first movement has much more of a sense of flow than we experienced in the first movement of Op 51/1. The lines seem longer and more confident as utterances yet, once again, there is urgency at times. The movement contains some charming episodes and these are done very well in this performance.

The gently songful Andante moderato is delicately played though the quartet makes the most of the brief, agitated episode. In the Quasi Minuetto, moderato I particularly enjoyed the lightness of articulation that we hear in the trio. The finale finds Brahms in Hungarian mode. This movement is lively and primarily forthright. The New Orfords give a spirited and highly articulate reading but I also admired very much the lovely moment of repose that they achieve immediately prior to the fiery coda.

These are excellent performances which I admired greatly. The playing is razor-sharp where required but at times when the tension dissipates there’s ample finesse too. The recording is clear and crisp. I had the impression of being in about the fourth row of the audience but I didn’t find the recording too close, let alone oppressive.

I wonder if this fine Canadian quartet has any plans to record the Brahms Third Quartet? On this showing that would be welcome.

John Quinn



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