Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Piano Quintet in F sharp minor Op. 67 (1907) [27:50]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Piano Quintet in A minor Op. 84 (1918/19) [35:46]
Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Takács Quartet
rec. 2019, The Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK
HYPERION CDA68295 [63:38]
The last concert I went to before lockdown was when Martin Roscoe joined the Brodsky Quartet, in their new line-up, in a small Lancashire village hall for an all-Elgar evening, consisting of the Violin Sonata, String Quartet and the Piano Quintet - and an excellent concert it was too, so much so that it prompted me to buy their recording of the string quartet and piano quintet (CHAN 10980). I was highly impressed by it, although it was by an earlier incarnation of the Brodsky’s, - but it was the concert which left the lasting impression.
This new recording places the Elgar second on the disc; it was composed over ten years after the Beach, after all. Of all of Elgar’s chamber works, for me, the piano quintet sticks out as his masterpiece. Strongly melodic and quite personal, this was one of the three chamber works that the composer wrote around the same time as the Cello Concerto, in his beloved Brinkwells between September 1918 and April 1919, coming after a period of ill health. The opening piano part, as Nigel Simeone states in the booklet notes, seems to quote from the Latin plainchant Salve regina. Here, whether intended or not, Garrick Ohlsson seems to emphasise this more than Martin Roscoe does, or, for that matter, than do my two other recordings, and the result is wonderful. This recording is the quickest of the versions I have - but in the case of Peter Donohoe and the Maggini Quartet (8.53737) only marginally so. It sustains tension throughout the whole work, but the first movement especially makes this new recording of the Elgar quintet a clear winner.
The Amy Beach Piano Quintet has not figured as prominently as Elgar’s, although this, too, is the third recording of the work in my collection. The ASV recording with Martin Roscoe and the Endellion String Quartet (CDCDA 932) has sadly bronzed and so does not play that well anymore, but I also have the Ambache recording for Chandos (CHAN 9752) which is coupled with a super performance of the Piano Trio. The Piano Quintet is dated December 1907, eleven years after her first real success, the Gaelic Symphony. It opens with a dark brooding Moderato section which leads into a more animated Allegro. Here the transition is excellent, with Brahmsian melodic qualities and progression. However, it is in the slow central Adagio movement that Garrick Ohlsson and especially the Takács Quartet really shine; they bring out the dream-like qualities more than the Ambache ensemble and the muted string playing is really fine; this performance brings out better the quality of Amy Beach’s writing. The final Andante – Allegro begins as if in a state of agitation before slipping into the slower section of the movement. This again leads into a quicker section that Brahms would have been proud of, strongly articulated and dramatic, before the music runs off headlong to the work’s conclusion.
Ohlsson and the Takács certainly make a stronger case for the Beach than the Ambache do, so it could come down to a choice of coupling: if you prefer the all-Beach programme on the Chandos disc, you will probably end up wanting this recording too, but if you want only the Piano Quintet, the Hyperion disc is a clear winner, especially when you appreciate the quality of their playing of the Elgar Quintet, which is the best recording I have. In fact, both works featured here are treated to the best performances I have heard on disc, the strongly figured and articulated playing bringing out the best of both works. This is aided by the excellent recorded sound achieved by the Hyperion engineers which really brings out the sparkle in performances by Ohlsson and the Takács Quartet. Nigel Simeone’s notes only serve to heighten the enjoyment of the music and the performance; this is a disc which will give great pleasure.