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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op 26 (1861, orch. Kenneth Woods, 2008-15, revised 2017)
English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods
rec. 2017, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI6364 [49:17]

The orchestration that Schoenberg made in 1937 of Brahms’ G minor Piano Quartet, Op 25 retains a toe hold in the repertoire and it has been recorded several times. Indeed, it’s only very recently that I reviewed a new release on which the Gälve Symphony Orchestra and Jaime Martin play Schoenberg’s take on Brahms. However, an orchestration of the A major Piano Quartet is a very different matter: I’m not entirely sure that anyone has essayed such a version – until now.

Kenneth Woods explains in a booklet note that the inspiration to make the orchestration first came to him in 2008 when he was coaching some young players in the work at a Festival. As he worked on the piece with them, he found himself thinking about the score in orchestral terms. Due to other commitments the task proceeded slowly and it was not until 2015 that his version was ready for performance. Further revisions followed the first public performance and the version heard on this disc was premiered in Cheltenham on 21 November 2017 – this recording was made two days earlier.

Unlike Schoenberg, whose version of the G minor Quartet he dislikes, Woods determined to eschew any ‘exotic’ instrumentation and instead write for Brahmsian forces. He consulted the scores of all four symphonies and also the D major Serenade Op 11. He’s recorded the latter with the Orchestra of the Swan but I’ve not heard that recording and we don’t seem to have reviewed it (SOMMCD0139). The forces on which he settled were the same as Brahms used in his First and Third symphonies: double woodwind, contrabassoon, four horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings. In my review of the recent recording of the Schoenberg version of Op 25 I commented that I could see the case for Schoenberg using instruments of his own time – such as the E flat clarinet - but where I parted company with him was in the use of percussion (other than timpani.) I’m glad that Kenneth Woods has followed a more orthodox Brahmsian course here. I think a Brahmsian tone of voice suits the A major Quartet in a way that a Schoenbergian accent would not have done. In Schoenberg’s version of Op 25 we hear Brahms admiringly refracted through a 20th century lens. Here, we experience Op 26 in a guise which Brahms, had he heard it, would have instantly recognised.

It will be obvious to the keen-eared listener that Woods has not simply made a transcription of Brahms’ score. As he points out in the booklet, there are passages of piano arpeggios, for example, which couldn’t be replicated on the orchestra “[s]hort of deploying an army of harps...” I don’t think adjustments of this nature matter very much provided the spirit of the music is retained and that the orchestrated results are credible: has Woods achieved that?

I fancy that what for some may be one of the most controversial aspects of his version occurs right at the start. The Piano Quartet opens with a melody in triplets played just by the pianist. It’s a real earworm and it proves to be pregnant with possibilities. Woods gives this motif to the four horns, who have to play very high and in the key of A which isn’t the most comfortable of territories for a horn player. The first time I played the disc I was somewhat taken aback; this isn’t a sonority which I can recall hearing in Brahms’ orchestral music. The scoring also has the effect of changing a fairly modestly enunciated piano theme almost into a little fanfare. But, do you know; it works. After I’d listened to the movement a couple of times I found I really like the sound of the theme as here presented. The movement itself is a big, ambitious composition and even when you listen to it in its original form you may wonder why Brahms struggled for so long to pen his First Symphony: the symphonic reach is there in this movement. That feeling is enhanced, I find, by hearing the music in orchestral guise. Kenneth Woods refers to the “statuesque grandeur” of the movement and sympathetic orchestral scoring certainly enhances that impression. I think his scoring of this movement is very successful; it bespeaks a deep knowledge of Brahms’ own writing for the orchestra. I particularly relish the way the woodwind instruments are used and, indeed, it seems to me that throughout this movement a range of authentic Brahmsian colours is used. The climax (from just before 10:00 to just after 11:00) is turbulent and powerful; in this version we are definitely in the sound world of the symphonies.

The lovely melody which begins the Poco Adagio is allotted to the clarinet and the mellow tone of that instrument means this is an inspired choice. Shortly thereafter, the low rumblings which, in the original, occur in the bass register of the piano are here transcribed, I think, for a combination of bassoons and low brass. The effect is not just dark but also somewhat unsettling. However, a more genial mood is soon restored through material allocated successively to clarinet and horn. The passionate outburst which starts just before 3:00 is ideally suited to strings and horns. At 5:31 there comes a radiant, extended melody which Brahms originally gave to the violin and cello in unison. Woods’ choice is solo violin and horn with comments from the clarinet. The result is gorgeous and the scoring unmistakably evokes the end of the slow movement of the First Symphony. This is a very fine movement to which the orchestral scoring adds an extra dimension.

In the Scherzo it seems to me that the melodic lines sound just right on whichever instrument Woods chooses to use, whether that be flute, clarinet, violins in unison with a horn, or whatever other choice is made. In the vigorous Trio I like the prominence given to the horn section; that adds a fair degree of backbone to the instrumental palette. The horns also make an important contribution to the finale or, rather, to the boisterous, high spirited episodes. Elsewhere, the more lyrical sections are pleasingly scored in a way that emphasises the contrast with the spirited passages of music. It seems to me that this vivacious finale is painted by Woods in authentic Brahmsian colours. The ending is especially exuberant, reminding me irresistibly of the conclusion to the Second Symphony.

As you’ll have gathered, I think Kenneth Woods has made a notable job of orchestrating this important chamber piece. It’s true, of course, that such a version sacrifices the sense of intimacy and the conversation between four individual musicians playing as one. On the other hand, the orchestration produces gains by imparting to the music not just a wider range of colours but also, I believe, by increasing still further the breadth and depth of Brahms’ music. Kenneth Woods mentions in the booklet that the scores of the four Brahms symphonies “are like a sacred text for me.” His work on this Quartet evidences that love and deep knowledge.

As for the performance, I enjoyed it very much indeed. The English Symphony Orchestra offers accomplished playing and they seem completely convinced by the music. Woods’ conducting is as authoritative as you’d expect. The orchestra has been well recorded and the booklet notes, by Kenneth Woods himself, give a useful introduction both to the Quartet itself and to the work he has done to clothe it in orchestral dress.

Readers will note that the playing time of this CD is rather short but Nimbus reflect that in offering the disc at less than full price.

This is a disc which Brahmsian collectors should hear. It presents one of his chamber masterpieces in a new and completely sympathetic light.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson

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