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Brahms, String Quartets and Piano Quintet, Emerson Quartet, Leon Fleischer (May 8, 2007)
String Quartet No. 1 (C minor, op. 51, no. 1)
String Quartet No. 2 (A minor, op. 51, no. 2)
String Quartet No. 3 (B-flat major, op. 67)
Piano Quintet (F minor, op. 34)
Takács Quartet (with András Schiff)
Alban Berg Quartet
Borodin Quartet (1 and 3 only)
The quartet continues its honorable tradition of alternating the seats of the violinists, and Philip Setzer drew the first violin straw for the second quartet of op. 51 (superior for the mournful third movement if nothing else). Eugene Drucker has a searing, almost electrified tone in the red-hot fortes of no. 1's forceful final movement, while Setzer gives a more mellow sound in no. 2. In the first movement of the A minor quartet, Brahms based the lead melody on the musical theme derived from Joseph Joachim's personal motto, "Frei Aber Einsam" (Free But Lonely, to which Brahms famously riposted that his motto was Frei Aber Froh -- Free But Happy -- which also became a musical theme, in the third symphony, for example). It was reportedly often due to Joachim's collegial but ruthless critique of Brahms's writing for strings that led the composer to shelve so many string quartets. What better tribute could there be to that brutally honest editorial voice in your life?
The last Brahms quartet, op. 67, is the latest piece, composed and published in 1876, on this recording. Only in this quartet does the first movement cease to dominate in length and meatiness, equaled by the elaborate variations of the fourth movement, on that happy Poco Allegretto theme. Although op. 67 is pleasant listening, given the choice, most of us would much rather hear the op. 34 piano quintet, which began life as a string quintet (with two cellos) and was also worked out by Brahms in a two-piano version (great fun to play). It is the crowning achievement of this recording, the result of a fruitful partnership with pianist Leon Fleisher. The latter's temperament is well suited to the Emerson Quartet, making this a match we hope to hear live one day soon.
Deutsche Grammophon B0008718-02
The Emerson Quartet will play all three of the Brahms string quartets on their Smithsonian Resident Associates series this season at the National Museum of Natural History (split between the December 9 and January 19 concerts). No F minor piano quintet on the horizon, though.