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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quintet Op.34 (1863) [42:27]
CÚsar FRANCK (1822-1890)
Piano Quintet in F minor (1879) [36:40]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Borodin Quartet
Bolshoi Theatre Quartet
rec. USSR, 1958/66, ADD
ALTO ALC1361 [79:16]

Decked out with fresh liner-notes by James Murray, we can welcome, without significant reserve, these two classics from the late 1950s and mid 1960s. I say 'significant' because some slight allowance must be made for the vanishingly slight audio depredations of six decades. The Franck has a degree more "rawness" than the Brahms. The sources for these two burly late romantic quintets are nicely cleaned up versions of LPs from Saga (5448 - which boasted "electronic stereo”) and Melodiya/Monitor. The sound is as passionate and as burred as the interpretations of these two late-Romantic piano quintets. These are tense, unwaveringly insistent and concentrated yet honour the interplay of emotional triumphant spasm and sidling calm.

In the Brahms you can hear the passionate hurly-burly in the first movement and gain an appreciation of the musicians' subtle engagement with suggestion rather than overt statements in the opening measures of the finale. In the three-movement Franck Quintet Richter and the quartet are marginally more distantly placed than in the Brahms. Also, the surfaces are noisier, though not unduly so. Is it an illusion but do the quartet's impassioned statements in the first of the three movements sound like Shostakovich's writing for orchestral strings? The spectral playing at the start of the last of the three movements buzzes with an entirely Soviet violence and this is all the more effective because of the tolled-out piano writing at the start of the middle Lento. This quality contrasts with much gentle writing. In both cases we hear much playing that is red in tooth and claw. That the booklet carries the legend "Legendary Performances" raises expectations and the recordings and interpretations deliver on these.

The two string quartets are not equally well known. Yes, we know that the then Borodin comprised Rostislav Dubinsky (violin I), Yaroslav Alexandrov (violin II), Dmitri Shebalin (viola) (presumably related to Vissarion Shebalin, a composer of note) and Valentin Berlinsky (cello). The Bolshoi Theatre Quartet line-up was, in this case, Isaak Zhuk (violin I), Boris Weltman (violin II), Moris Gurvich (viola) and Isaac Buravski (cello). I make pains to set out the personnel; because these performances are as much about writing for the quartet members as they are about Richter.

Rob Barnett


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