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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quintet No.1 in F mjaor Op.88 [28.37]
String Quintet No.2 in G major Op.111 [30.16]
WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne Chamber Players (Ye Wu & Andreea Florescu (violins), Mischa Pfeiffer & Thomasz Neugebauer(violas), Susanne Eychmüller (cello))
rec. Cologne, December 2016
Reviewed in surround
PENTATONE PTC5186663 SACD [58.56]

Brahms wrote these works at the height of his powers in 1882 and 1890. In each he chose a second viola rather than a second cello as the additional instrument, a choice which gives a distinctive colour well suited to these autumnal inspirations. Having started with Brahms the Symphonist when beginning my explorations of classical music as a teenager, I arrived at the chamber music comparatively recently and still find myself startled by the qualities of music I have spent a lifetime ignoring. Like so much of Brahms’ chamber music, these two quintets have the rhythmic drive and emotional power of orchestral pieces.

Ivor Keys, in his splendid biography of Brahms, notes that the composer was very pleased with the First Quintet. When he submitted the score to his publisher Simrock, along with the Op.87 Piano Trio and the Op.89 Songs he included this note: “I tell you, you have not ever had anything so good from me, nor perhaps published in the last ten years!!!” When one considers that the previous works included the first two symphonies, the Violin Concerto, the Second Piano Concerto and the Tragic Overture, one can see he was making quite a strong statement of confidence. It is easy to hear why, as this lovely three-movement work progresses through its half hour length. This is time well spent. Work on the Second Quintet, eight years later, entailed revisiting the First which he still felt was one of his finest works. His friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg reassured the 57 year old Brahms that this Second Quintet was “a riper, sweeter vintage”. Curiously, he made efforts to convince Simrock that he was composed-out after this piece. Fortunately for those of us who love the later Clarinet Quintet, he was not. Maybe the skilled instrumentalists of the WDR Cologne Chamber Players will soon include that in their recordings for Pentatone.

The fact that these players work together in the fine WDR orchestra has probably done much to give a seamless quality to their ensemble, yet there is not a hint of restraint and the power and lyricism of Brahms String Quintets is given full expression. With Pentatone’s usual very high quality engineering I would judge this disc to be a necessary purchase for all lovers of late-romantic chamber music.

The notes are oddly disjointed and don't read very well in English, perhaps the German originals by Jörg Peter Urbach come over better. The picture chosen to front this SACD is probably supposed to reflect the spontaneity of these players; I think it simply looks as if the wrong frame got printed. A more 'right' picture is on the WDR Chamber Players web site or indeed the Pentatone release page.

Dave Billinge



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