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Josef LABOR (1842-1924)
Piano Quintet, Op. 3 (1886) [37:15]
Piano Quartet, Op. 6 (1893) [29:56]
Nina Karmon (violin), Pauline Sachse (viola), Justus Grimm (cello), Niek de Groot (double bass), Oliver Triendl (piano)
rec. 2018, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
CAPRICCIO C5390 [67:11]

Josef Labor's dates and background and the fact that he was born in the German-speaking part of Bohemia raises expectations about these two mighty chamber works. The music not so much oozes, but flows irresistibly and does so with Brahmsian grace.

Labor was blind from the age of three. Like Anton Bruckner he was a pupil of Simon Sechter. He was appointed court pianist to King George V of Hanover. On the King’s death in 1879, and as a sign of the times, he found a new benefactor in the industrialist father of the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961). Paul himself was to commission many composers to write left-hand-only piano works. Indeed, Paul commissioned no fewer than eleven such works from Labor. One of his ‘themes’ was the subject of a variations movement from Franz Schmidt's 1938 quintet for piano, clarinet and string instruments.

The present two chamber works date from long before Labor's association with Wittgenstein. In the Quintet, after the romantic buffets and torrents of the Allegro and Scherzo comes a very touching and heart-healing Andante. I should add that the second movement Scherzo ends with a vertiginous ‘landslide’ worthy of the best of high-water romantic piano concertos. The final Allegro ma non Troppo does have its doldrums when the focus slips and the attention drifts, but in general we can rely on the music’s intrinsic virtues and on these musicians. This is especially true of the well-tried and -triumphed pianist Oliver Triendl. He lets not a note pass without giving voice to some snatched surprise, poetic delight or pummelled energy.

The slightly shorter piano quartet opens with a melody of trickling and babbling dynamism. It rises without breathlessness to considerable heights but what stays with this listener is the burbling theme which promises much and delivers. That first movement runs to 12 minutes.

There are then two five-minute movements: an Adagio and a Quasi Allegretto. Then comes another Allegro ma non Troppo which has the air of a stately royal anthem. I must concede that this subsides into stolidity from time to time, rather like a symphonic finale by Glazunov but in a quite different way. In this work the courtly grandeur gets in the way of a truly flourishing 'symphonic' master-blow.

The close-quarters recording is very warm. This complements the music’s Brahmsian warmth and these players’ musicianship.

Labor seems not to have written a numerically large body of work. A piano concerto is mentioned as well as other major pieces written during his early maturity. These have disappeared. Apart from the potential treasures of Labor’s Wittgenstein works we seem to be left with these two early efforts which are impressive both in their delicacy and in their grand momentum.

The ensemble, led by Nina Karmon, does not have a collective name; after all, in neither work do we hear a full string quartet with the piano. The quintet adds violin viola, cello and double bass and the usual string trio for the quartet.

Rob Barnett

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