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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Quintet in F Minor Op.34 (1864)
String Quintet in G Major Op.111 (1890)
Boris Giltburg (piano)
Pavel Nikl (viola)
Pavel Haas Quartet
rec. 2021, Domovinga Studio, Prague
SUPRAPHON SU4306-2 [72]

Is it a string quintet? A sonata for two pianos? Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it is in fact….one of the greatest masterpieces in the chamber music literature: Brahms Piano Quintet Op. 34, which like several other Brahms masterworks (Piano Trio 1, Piano Concerto 1, Serenade 1; there is even a version for solo viola of the sacrosanct clarinet sonata) had a prolonged gestation and compositional evolution, often due to his acute feeling of the Beethovenian legacy. “You don't know what it is like, to feel that giant marching along behind me” he wrote to Hermann Levi - which is why his First Symphony took him over twenty years to complete, but he finished his Second just one year later, with a palpable sense of liberation.

The Op. 34 Piano Quintet still exists as a double-piano sonata, as Brahms had this published too. But despite repeated hearings, and even allowing for the familiarity factor with the Piano Quintet itself, I can only hear it as a reduction. Clara Schumann called it “an arrangement”.  Yes; you really need the strings in this marvellous music. It would certainly be fascinating to hear the string quintet version (which had the Schubertian second cello, rather than the Mozartian viola of the Op.88 and Op.111 String Quintets) but I’ve been unable to ascertain if any edition of this exists. Two of my favourite recordings of Op.34 and Op.111 are on period instruments, with Ironwood (ABC) and the Dudok Quartet (Rubicon) respectively - but we’ll come back to that.

So - how do the Haas approach Op.34, with pianist Boris Giltburg (on a Fazioli)? Sweeping, soaring and songful in the allegro and andante, thrilling bite and drive in the scherzo and finale, the dynamic range stunningly wide, an almost orchestral power through climaxes; the final coda has a physically stunning ferocity. Wow!

But…. does the vibrato have to be quite so persistent, quite so dominant of the tonal character? I turned to a long-term reference, the Leipzig String Quartet with Andreas Staier, where with the modern-instrument set-up the vibrato is of course still employed, but with some restraint and allied to a purer, less overtly rich and Romantic tonal blend. But still a terrific attack here, an almost ascetic feel with a clearer acoustic presence (typical of MDG, with the instruments set in a palpable venue). In the central episode of the andante, the phrasing is more natural, (the Haas a little forced here); the scherzo has greater mystery, more tonal and dynamic light and shade. To my ears, Andreas Staier has the edge in a more individualistic piano contribution. So this is one of the great Op.34s, even allowing for it being alone on the CD.

Both performances are superb, but I felt the Leipzigers served the musical vision rather more devotedly; the Haas group draw more attention to their own (staggering) abilities. The Leipzigers and Staier don’t always worry about sounding “beautiful”; they can take it all right down from fierce, blatant attack to the hushed, bare and stark.

Ironwood (period instruments with a Streicher Piano of the kind Brahms knew well, on ABC) slide into the CD drawer, and the benefits of less (not entirely absent) vibrato are soon apparent: purity of line, the music in the foreground, not that specific, ubiquitous intonation. With an almost improvisatory, rubato-rich piano part (very touchingly feeling-your-way in the slow movement), this is startlingly different. There is a caveat though: very extensive portamento, which some ears may find just a little too much (Brahms and his contemporaries would have seen it as simply as part of the performers’ armoury, but perhaps it is a little overdone here).

A striking interpretive feature is how Ironwood keep singing, even through the more dramatic, biting passages of the finale. Those period instruments really tell in the rich lower registers, the minimal vibrato revealing Brahms’ dark and defiant lines wonderfully well. The warmth of the strings, the balance with the Streicher, are very seductive on the ear of anyone who knows this music and loves it “not wisely but too well”.  Still, I felt their approach perhaps comes off better in the Op.25 on the same album.   But, well out into left field, so different as to be almost incomparable; Ironwood’s Brahms just has to be heard. Prick up your ears and then some!

On to Op.111, and here I will introduce the young period-instrument Dudok Quartet. This second string quintet was originally conceived as a “farewell to music” by Brahms himself, but his inspirational encounters with a certain Richard Mühlfeld changed all that!

The Pavel Haas Quartet with Pavel Nikl on second viola (one of the Haas’ founders, back here as guest) do all that their Op.34 leads one to expect. The devoted Brahmsian is swept up in the power and the glory of this ensemble, even more hearts-of-oak, dark, full and powerful due to the centrally-placed cello. Again, such breath-taking delicacy too; the almost supernatural dynamic ability to turn on a musical sixpence from a whisper to a roar. Yes, the overt vibrato still bothers me a little; like the “wobble' in a soprano or contralto voice, which may exist alongside other more individual and positive characteristics. But I wonder - what could possibly match this sonic spectacle? “How high a pitch their resolution soars!”

So to the young and innovative Dudok Quartet with Lili Maijala on second viola, and the vibrato is there, but with applied much more selectively, with expressively apt restraint: those richly textured, mellow historical bass tones are allowed to sing more clearly, one’s ears open with relish of the refreshment. So this has a more intimate character, especially in the adagio and menuetto, where the tonal purity, delicacy and colouristic range (especially in the lower registers) of those instruments d’époque have the edge over a modern instrumental set-up in their articulacy and expressive range and a very touching tenderness.

Yet in the finale, the Dudoks can still evoke Brahms and Joachim sinking a few pints in the tavern and dancing - if not on the tables, certainly around them (“Joachim in headscarf and gold earrings”, as Malcolm Macdonald puts it in his excellent Master Musicians book on Brahms). The Haas are also very good here, but a shade overpowering, where the Dudoks are earthier, more evocative of the musical spirit. Theirs is an exceptional album (on Rubicon), including all the String Quartets (Op.51 1/2 and Op.67) - essential for all Brahmsians!

The Leipzigers (with Hartmut Rohde) in Op.111? A similar comparative case against the Haas as in Op.34, very beautiful indeed and almost my favourite again, though in the finale they don't quite have the unbuttoned abandonment to complete the expressive contrasts with the purity and nobility of the preceding movements. I’m a devoted fan of the Leipziger Streiquartette. I love almost all they have done from Mendelssohn to Schoenberg, and find it hard to be objective about them. I look forward very keenly to more Brahms from the Dudok Quartet and their friends. But do listen closely to the Haas in these glorious Quintets: a thrilling and spectacular experience!

Jayne Lee Wilson

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