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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet in C minor, Op 51 No 1 (1873) [32:30]
String Quartet in A minor, Op 51 No 2 (1873) [33:43]
Takács Quartet
Rec. 1990, venue not given
Presto CD
DECCA 425 526-2 [66:13]

For those who, like me, think the Takács one of the finest, if not the finest string quartet currently playing, this disc has a particular interest in that here we have the original line-up of the group. Takács-Nagy founded the ensemble in 1975, and they started winning awards and making recordings. However, in 1993 Takács-Nagy left to pursue a career as a conductor and he was followed in the following year by Ormai, who was incurably ill. It was with their replacements, leader Edward Dusinberre and viola Roger Tapping, that I first came across them in the mid 1990s with their wonderful set of the Bartók quartets. This was followed by the complete Beethoven cycle, which has also been much and rightly praised. There have been other changes in personnel since then but they have maintained their standards under the guidance of Dusinberre, who seems to me one of the great quartet leaders. They switched from Decca after the Beethoven cycle – which they had to subsidize – to Hyperion, for whom they continue to record.

It was a long struggle for Brahms to complete string quartets with which he was sufficiently satisfied to publish. He was understandably reluctant to invite a direct comparison with Beethoven. Characteristically, he did not evade the challenge but took it head on in the first of these quartets, choosing the key of C minor, particularly associated by Beethoven with a stormy and tumultuous mood – it is the key of the Sonata pathétique, the fifth symphony and the third piano concerto, among other works. Brahms emulates Beethoven in the driving rhythms of his first and last movements but there are also numerous Brahmsian touches, such as lyricism, cross rhythms and the replacing of a scherzo by a gentle Allegretto.

The second quartet starts as sternly as the first, with the FAE figure associated with Brahms’s friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. But it features a charming, even playful, second subject in the first movement. There is a good of contrapuntal writing, not always obvious to the listener. All four movements are in the same key, A minor or A major, which is unusual. The finale is a vigorous Hungarian dance, as are the finales of the first piano quartet and the violin concerto. In this case it is a czárdas, featuring characteristically Brahmsian cross-rhythms.

The original line-up of the Takács quartet give these works vigorous and sensitive performances. Perhaps occasionally I felt that some of the transitions were not handled as adroitly as they might have been, and in places the texture was not quite clear, with subordinate themes obscuring the main line. But this is being hypercritical: by any standards these are good performances. This Decca recording also has a companion, with Brahms’s third string quartet and the piano quintet. However, I should note that the Takács, in a later formation with Geraldine Walther as violist, remade these works. These more recent versions, on Hyperion, are also on two discs but differently coupled, with the second quartet coupled with the piano quintet and the other two on another disc. I have not heard them but they have been highly praised and would probably be a first choice. Still, these Decca versions are worth hearing.

Stephen Barber

Takács Quartet:
Gábor Takács-Nagy, Károly Schranz (violins), Gábor Ormai (viola), András Fejér (cello)

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