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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; Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne

On Myrios Classics with this new Brahms album the Hagen Quartet has coupled the String Quartet No. 3 with the Piano Quintet joined by pianist Kirill Gerstein. It isn’t long before one realises that the Hagen Quartet have full measure of these scores providing exceptional performances that are a match for any I know.

Brahms wrote his String Quartet No. 3 in 1876 and dedicated it to his friend Professor Theodor Wilhelm Engelmann from the University of Utrecht. This good-humoured score makes a marked contrast to the two earlier quartets. Biographer Walter Frisch referred to it as ‘neoclassical in spirit, but ultra-sophisticated in its triumph.’ In the opening movement, marked Vivace, the Hagen provide a performance that exudes joy and exuberance contrasted with episodes of moodiness. Often, I was reminded of the string quartets of Haydn and Mozart. Described as ‘a song without words’, the Andante is played so convincingly with a sense of comfort and often aching tenderness. I love the way Brahms ends the movement with a subtle instrumental Amen. In the disconcerting third movement, Agitato (Allegretto non troppo) - TrioCoda, taking centre stage is Veronika Hagen’s prominent viola part played together with the other three strings all muted. Here I am struck by the moody often turbulent disposition contrasted with an elusive character the Hagen affords to the writing. In the final movement, a theme and set of variations, the Hagen’s mellow mood of unwavering conviviality shines through.

A greatly esteemed work, the Brahms’ Piano Quintet is a mainstay of the standard repertoire and according to musicologist David Ewen ‘one of the supreme achievements of chamber music.’ This delightful and popular Piano Quintet evidently began life in 1862 as a string quintet employing a pair of cellos. Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim pointed out deficiencies in the manuscript of the quintet and a doubtlessly disenchanted and demoralised Brahms abandoned the score stating ‘it will be better if it goes to sleep.’ He reworked the material into a Sonata in F minor for two pianos that was published in 1871 as his Op. 34b. At the urging of Clara Schumann, Brahms returned to the music in 1864 to create this final version for Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 a work dedicated to Princess Anna of Hesse. In the Piano Quintet the Hagen is joined by pianist Kirill Gerstein. Noticeable in the mighty and substantial opening movement Allegro non troppo is the way the players perceptively provide a performance that is squally and often serious in tone. As a stark contrast, the second movement Andante is a typical Brahmsian blend of bitter-sweet. With a strong Schubertian disposition the players excel in delivering playing of passionate yearning. The working of three contrasting themes marks the Scherzo movement and overall, I am enamoured by how the players capture the proud and restless character of Brahms’ expansive writing. Complex and unrelenting in the final movement, Brahms writes for a wide range of chaotic emotions with a headlong dash to the wire. Overall this is a performance on which the players lavish buoyant energy, a quality far too often underplayed.
Brahms chamber works are repertoire staples, with the Piano Quintet being exceptionally popular on record with lots of choice in the record catalogue. My favourite recording is the legendary Borodin Quartet who recorded Brahms’ String Quartets No’s 1-3 and the Piano Quintet to considerable acclaim; performances that have been brought together as a most desirable double album on Teldec Ultima. The Borodin recorded the String Quartet No. 3 at Snape Maltings, Suffolk in 1990 and in the Piano Quintet the Borodin is joined by pianist Eliso Virsaladze for a sparkling and exceptional performance recorded at Berlin in 1993. Some may have slight reservations over the balance of the forward-placed piano in the forte passages. Another stirring all-Brahms set which I often play that contains the String Quartet No. 1 and the Piano Quintet is the Emerson String Quartet with pianist Leon Fleisher recorded in 2005/06 at New York City on Deutsche Grammophon (c/w String Quartets 1 & 2).

Technically accomplished, these Hagen performances would pass the most exacting inspection combined with interpretations that breathe energy and satisfaction. My fingers are crossed for an album of the first two string quartets from the Hagen.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Stephen Greenbank
Hagen String Quartet members:
Lukas Hagen (violin I)
Rainer Schmidt (violin II)
Veronika Hagen (viola)
Clemens Hagen (cello)

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