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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet No. 3 in B flat major, Op. 67 (1876) [36:42]
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34 (1864) [43:23]
Hagen Quartet
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
rec. 2014 Sendesaal, Bremen (Op. 67); Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln (Op. 34)
MYRIOS CLASSICS MYR021 [80:17]

The Salzburg-based Hagen Quartet has achieved unparalleled acclaim over the almost forty years of its existence as one of the finest quartet ensembles around. I've been an ardent fan for much of that time. Since 1981 they've worked their way through a large portion of the quartet repertoire, and some of their recordings, for me at least, have become benchmark versions. I'm thinking especially of their Mozart cycle, the Dvorák String Quartet No.12 "American" and Kodály’s String Quartet No.2. In addition to their profound musicianship, there's that youthful freshness, always there, where nothing ever sounds jaded. They started off as four siblings, but now Rainer Schmidt plays second violin, with Lukas, Verokika and Clemens Hagen playing first violin, viola and cello respectively. Their instruments are the “Paganini” Quartet, a set of Antonio Stradivari instruments, once the property of Niccolň Paganini. They are on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation.

After the more serious and, some would say, severe Op. 51 Quartets, there's a striving for simplicity in Brahms’ 3rd and final visit to the medium, with writing that’s much more lightly textured. The first movement opens onto a sunlit vista, where there's a pervading sense of joy and optimism. Did the composer have the same movement of Mozart’s “Hunt” Quartet in his subconscious when writing it? It appears so. The Hagens fully immerse themselves into the holiday mood with their uplifting playing. How wonderfully they sculpt the Mendelssohnian slow movement, music overflowing with charm and elegance. In the third movement, prominence is given to the viola by muting the other string players, the recording nicely profiles the instrument. The finale is structured as a set of variations, and in the Hagens' hands it emerges sprightly and infectious.

The youthful Piano Quintet started life as a string quintet in 1862, but reservations expressed by Joseph Joachim resulted in the composer refashioning it as a sonata for two pianos. This didn't satisfy Clara Schumann who yearned for the strings to have a role. So the work in its present form came into being. The year was 1864, and the dedicatee was Princess Anna of Hesse. The Hagens are joined by the Russian/American pianist Kirill Gerstein for this titanic reading of Olympian grandeur. After an imposing opening movement, the Adagio, based on a Slavic melody, provides some serene contrast. The Scherzo is thrilling, with the dotted rhythms having visceral impact. After a pensive slow introduction, the finale is played with searing passion and intensity. Gerstein's superlative pianism integrates well into the mix, aided by Myrios' superb engineering which offers the listener a balance that's second-to-none. This has to be one of the most potent, exciting and musically informed readings I've ever encountered.

All the ingredients are present in these performances and add up to a hugely satisfying experience. Beautifully recorded sound, artful musicianship – one couldn't ask for more. This has to be one of the highlights of my listening year. 

Stephen Greenbank



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