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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34 [45:01] Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartet No.1 in A minor, Op.41 No.1 [26:25]
Menahem Pressler (piano)
rec. 19-21 November 2014 (Brahms), 2-3 May 2016 (Schumann), Auer Hall, Indiana University, USA. CEDILLE CDR90000170 [71:39]
Born barely a quarter of a century after the death of Brahms, Menahem Pressler has been associated with the composer’s chamber music with piano for over seven decades. This recording provides a link between an age when the influence of Brahms held sway over a generation of German musicians and our time when, for many, Brahms belongs to the same distant past as Beethoven and Bach.
He was 91 when this recording was made, and Pressler brings to the Brahms Quintet all the poise and stateliness of a man in whose very blood this music runs and who has nothing to prove. The first movement has a generous and expansive feel, the opening somewhat reticent, and the body of the movement eloquently paced to allow each of the principal themes to be fully revealed without any sense of urgency or haste. This is an Allegro which takes the non troppo indication very much to heart. Once or twice one feels Pressler’s hold on the tempo lacks real stability, but the Pacifica Quartet are relishing the music too much to allow small wobbles to send it off course.
If age does impinge on Pressler’s playing, it does so in the second movement where there is a certain lumpiness to the opening piano passage and some rather stiff-jointed changes of speed. Otherwise the movement passes by with an atmosphere of calm and repose which is utterly enchanting, There is energy and vitality in the busily chattering third movement, but speed is not the overriding sensation here; strength and deliberation are. The central theme is beautifully nuanced by all five players whose sense of interpretative unity is nowhere more vividly displayed than here. My only real disappointment comes with the somewhat heavy-going pacing of the finale, weighed down in places by Pressler’s heavy left hand and a feeling of ponderousness which is barely alleviated by the light-hearted presto of the closing bars.
Left to their own devices, the Pacifica come up with a sumptuously beautiful and magnificently eloquent account of the Schumann Quartet. Lyrical lines flow with an almost loving tenderness, while rhythmic figures are crisply delivered. Dynamics are fully exploited and that aura of close comradeship and easy togetherness which marks out any top-notch chamber group is always vividly present – not least in the wonderfully nimble and delicate playing at the start of the Mendelssohnian Scherzo. Subtle changes of speed and deftly turned phrases seem to flow naturally from all four players in this glorious exhibition of outstanding chamber playing, and the slow movement has surely never been recorded with quite such luxuriant breadth.