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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15 (1876/79, rev. 1883) [31.22]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Piano Quartet in A minor (1988) [6.44]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 (1861) [39.52]
Berlin Piano Quartet
rec. 2015, Kleiner Sendesaal des RBB Berlin, Germany
RCA RED SEAL 88875175552 [78:22]

On its web page the Berlin Piano Quartet states a desire to perform rarely played repertoire and this new album does confirm that intention up to a point. What we have are two mid-to-late nineteenth century piano quartets from Brahms and Fauré, both repertoire staples, plus the rarity a single movement work by Schnittke written less than thirty years ago and lasting just under seven minutes.

Fauré wrote the first of his pair of piano quartets around the time his fiancé broke off their engagement. The C minor Quartet was introduced in 1880 at a Société Nationale de Musique concert at the Salle Pleyel, Paris with the composer substantially revising the score in 1883 including totally rewriting the Finale. It is often said that the composer reflected his emotional distress in the Adagio movement. Vehemently uplifting, the opening Allegro molto moderato contains joyous playing from the Berlin Piano Quartet maintaining a touch of elegance. Outstanding too is the aching sadness conveyed in the heartfelt Adagio which contains a particular intimate quality. For recordings of this enchanting C minor score, first place goes to the award winning 1985 Rosslyn Hill Chapel account from Domus for its distinguished playing of real integrity on Hyperion.

Schnittke wrote his Piano Quartet in A minor in 1988 based on a Scherzo fragment from an incomplete Piano Quartet by the teenage Mahler. Predominately unruly and agitated the complexities of Schnittke’s polystylic approach to the writing with steely dark dissonances makes this a challenging listen in a work that ends with a quotation from Mahler’s score.

Completed by Brahms in 1861 the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor was premièred that same year in Hamburg with Clara Schumann at the piano. In 1862, Brahms made his Vienna debut as a composer and pianist with this work to great acclaim. It is an unqualified masterwork which has remained a perennial favourite of audiences. Only last week I attended a performance of it in the Schoenberg orchestration by the RLPO under Jacek Kaspszyk. Standing out in this performance by the Berlin Piano Quartet is the warm and richly lyrical opening movement. I also relished the Scherzo wistful on the surface with a rather spectral undertow. There are more thrilling performances available of the captivating Finale: Rondo alla Zingarese, however striking is the overall exuberance of the playing. Of the competing accounts probably the best known is from Martha Argerich, Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet and Mischa Maisky who came together in 2002 at Teldex Studio, Berlin. The starry line-up don’t disappoint with truly inspired chamber playing on Deutsche Grammophon. Another masterly account, radiantly performed with stylish expression comes from the quartet of Nicholas Angelich, Renaud Capuçon, Gérard Caussé and Gautier Capuçon recorded in 2007 at Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano on Erato. This release is the outstanding choice for all three of Brahms’s Piano Quartets.

Founded in 2014 the Berlin Piano Quartet comprises of three strings from the Berliner Philharmoniker together with French pianist Kim Barbier. One does sense a particular understanding between the players with its notably expressive and often thrilling playing. Perhaps not surprising for a quartet which doesn’t play together all the time there are occasional lapses in ensemble and also string intonation is not always flawless. No problem at all with Barbier’s rounded piano tone which sounds excellent. Recorded at Kleiner Sendesaal des RBB Berlin the engineers have achieved reasonable results especially the balance between piano and strings yet ideally I wanted a touch more focused sound.

With its wish to explore neglected repertoire the Berlin Piano Quartet might want to turn its attention to an outstanding group of English works namely Frank Bridge’s highly praised Phantasie Piano Quartet in F sharp minor (1910), Arthur Bliss Piano Quartet in A minor (1915) and Herbert Howells Piano Quartet in A minor (1916).

Michael Cookson



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