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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Quartet in G minor, K478 [25:44]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Piano Quartet movement in A minor [11:22]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47 [25:01]
Berlin Piano Quartet (Christophe Horak (violin), Micha Afkham (viola), Bruno Delepelaire (cello), Kim Barbier (piano))
rec. 2017, Kleiner Sendesaal des RBB, Berlin
RCA RED SEAL 88985432572 [63:09]

Last year I was delighted to review the first album by the Berlin Piano Quartet that I had heard (review). It comprised a work each by Brahms and Fauré, both repertoire staples, and a rarity a single-movement piece by Schnittke. Now the Berlin Piano Quartet has turned its attention to three more works for piano quartet. In the notes, we are told that the Quartet’s desire is to develop rarely played repertoire for piano quartet an, intention which seems a considerable distance away here, as it has chosen two old warhorses by Mozart and Schumann, and Mahler’s piano quartet movement which is certainly no stranger to the recording studio.

Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor K478, dated 1785, is one of the first ever of the genre to be written. It came about as a commission for an intended set of three works from Vienna music publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister. A year later Mozart did go on to write his other piano quartet in E-flat major, K493. A third quartet never materialised. Mozart’s masterly part-writing is accomplished by the Berlin players. Delepelaire’s cello produces a noticeably rich resonance. In the Andante I love the way the players astutely maintain a strong sense of intimacy, with a splendid internal balance. Exceptional is the degree of elegance and buoyancy given to the Rondo: Finale. In the G minor Quartet despite the commendable efforts of the Berlin Piano Quartet my first choice recommendation is the compelling account by the Éder Quartet with pianist Dezső Ránki. Recorded in the late 1970s, the recording originally released on Telefunken (Teldec) has been reissued on Warner Apex.

Schumann married Clara Wieck in 1840 after much opposition from her parents. Buoyed with an energising zeal he entered an especially productive period of his life. In 1842 he embarked on writing several chamber works. The fruits of this fertile period included three String Quartets, Op. 41, a Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 and the Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47 played here. Rather less expansive, less flamboyant than the better-known Piano Quintet, the score belongs in the same noble class. Best of all is the Mendelssohnian Scherzo, which derives a great deal of charm from a recurrent staccato phase used to link each section. The Berlin players give an exhilarating performance, full of determination and youthful zest. The Andante with its romantic main theme is simply a love-song. The players take turns to sing and embellish the sweet, heartfelt melody. At the centre of the movement they withdraw into a calmly warm and intimate passage of Beethovenian nobility and pathos. Benchmark status for the E-flat major Quartet is confidently awarded to the evergreen analogue recording by the Beaux Arts Trio and violist Samuel Rhodes. Recorded by Philips at Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 1975, that account is distinguished for its refined musicianship.
Mahler’s Piano Quartet movement in A minor marked Nicht zu schnell appears to be a movement of a projected piano quartet commenced whilst Mahler was a student at the Vienna Conservatory. The movement, it seems, had its first performance in 1876 at the Conservatory with Mahler playing the piano part. Admirable is the way the players underscore the surging mass of passionate writing that rages through the work, climbing so impressively before falling back to a sense of calm relief. The impact is very powerful and achieves an impressive orchestral tone at times. The finest recording of the Mahler movement I know—a forthright and sparkling approach—is by Beethoven Trio, Wien with pianist Christiane Karajeva. Recorded in 1998 at Studio Baumgarten Vienna, the account was released on Camerata label.

This RCA Red Seal album recorded at Kleiner Sendesaal, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg is impressively clear and reasonably well balanced, although ideally requiring additional warmth. In the booklet, Ingeborg Allihn’s informative essay provides helpful background to each work. The Berlin Piano Quartet plays impressively and displays great promise for its future career. I hope it is not long before this talented group records some of the English piano quartets prevalent in the early decades of the twentieth century, notably by Bliss, Bridge, Howells and Walton.

Michael Cookson



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