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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano quintet in F minor Op. 34 (1862-5)
String quartet in B flat Op. 67 (1876)
Takács string quartet (Gábor Takács-Nagy, Károly Schranz (violins), Gábor Ormai (viola), András Fejér (cello), András Schiff (piano)
rec January and July 1990 at Mozartsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Presto CD
DECCA 430 529-2 [74:32]

This is the partner to the disc with the string quartets Op. 51 which has also recently come out in Presto’s reissue programme (review). They both feature the Takács Quartet in their original line-up. This was always an excellent ensemble, even though I consider it was only when Edward Dusinberre took over from Gábor Takács-Nagy as leader in 1993 that it became superlative.

The main news here is the piano quintet, in which they are joined by the pianist András Schiff. So this was an all-Hungarian team. The work is stormy, indeed tragic and passionate, but nevertheless, like the best of all such works, it is also exhilarating. It had a troubled start, not in its content but in the medium in which it was to be presented. Brahms first drafted it as a string quintet with two cellos – the same combination as in Schubert’s string quintet – and this is how it was first performed. However, Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim both expressed doubts about its sound and Brahms withdrew it. He destroyed this version, but it has been reconstructed by Anssi Kartunen and recorded on Toccata TOCC0066; listening to it, though it has been skilfully done, confirms the judgement of Brahms’s friends. (Another reconstruction, by Sebastian Brown, was warmly received by Jonathan Woolf (review).) Brahms then turned it into a sonata for two pianos, which was also agreed to be not satisfactory, though he preserved and later published this version. The recent recording by Éric Le Sage and Théo Fouchenneret makes an excellent case for it (review). Finally, he turned it into the version before us, for piano quintet, in which form it has always been accepted as one of the finest of Brahms’s early chamber works. He obviously took a great deal of care about the distribution of the melodic lines between the piano and the strings, often not making the obvious choices, and only perhaps at the beginning of the Andante second movement, does one think that the two cello version might have been preferable.

The performance here is superb. Schiff has not recorded a great deal of chamber music, but here at least he shows himself an ideal partner. Although his instrument could easily swamp all the strings together he holds it in balance, even in the most forceful passages, and when the strings have the main melodic line he shows that he can accompany with style. I do not know how much time they had to prepare the work and whether they had performed it in concert but Schiff with the Takács certainly sound like a seasoned combination rather than one of those celebrity-led ensembles thrown together at the last minute to make a recording.

It is appropriately coupled with the last of Brahms’s three string quartets. This is a much more light-hearted work than its predecessors, and it seems to have been composed during breaks from working on his first symphony. In this work, unlike in the previous quartets and the symphony, Brahms seems no longer concerned with matching up to Beethoven but simply writing a work he enjoyed writing. The sleevenote compares it to a divertimento and I would not disagree. The first movement makes a good deal of play with contrasting duple and triple metres – think of Holst’s Mercury – at one point superimposing them. The slow movement is quietly lyrical, though with a contrasting dramatic middle section. Incidentally, there are two bars in 5/4 metre, which must be one of the earliest such uses of this in Western music. In the scherzo the viola has a prominent soloistic role while the other three instruments are muted. The finale is a set of variations which end up returning to the main theme of the first movement, a device Brahms was to use again in the Clarinet Quintet.

The performance here is admirably clear and lucid, and also free from the balance problems which I occasionally noted in their version of the Op. 51 quartets. The recording is good, with details given this time. However, just confining myself to the present artists, I need to note the competition. You can also get this version of the piano quintet on a two-disc reissue from Eloquence featuring other Brahms chamber works with András Schiff, for little more than the cost of this issue (review). The Takács also remade the three quartets and the piano quintet for Hyperion, coupling them differently, and to my mind less logically, though if you get both discs this will not matter (review review). This was with the quartet’s later line-up and Stephen Hough in the piano quintet. I haven’t heard these but I find it difficult to believe that they could have surpassed their earlier version of the piano quintet, good though I am sure the later one is. This is a rewarding disc, possibly more so than its companion.

Stephen Barber

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