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Emerson Quartet's Brahms

Available at Amazon:
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Brahms, String Quartets and Piano Quintet, Emerson Quartet, Leon Fleischer
(May 8, 2007)

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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)
We have reviewed the Emerson Quartet in concert several times, most recently in a Shostakovich half-cycle and in a concert with Menahem Pressler at Shriver Hall. Their new recording of the complete Brahms string quartets has been in my MP3 player for a few months now, and in spite of doubts about the importance of the Brahms quartets to my musical life, it has provided very good listening regularly. It is not that these works are underexposed on CD, although they are not heard in concert as much as some: in our archives, we find the Atlantic Quartet this year, the Mandelring Quartet in 2006, and the Shanghai Quartet in 2005, from which we can piece together the whole set. This recording is still not preferable to its main competition, the two discs made in the 1980s by the Takács Quartet with András Schiff on the F minor piano quintet (two other good options are listed with it below). For the exact same program, however, the Emerson's 2-CD set comes in at one-third of the price of the Decca re-release. The excellent liner notes by respected Brahms scholar Walter Frisch are an added incentive.

Brahms Quartets:
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Takács Quartet (with András Schiff)

available at Amazon
Alban Berg Quartet

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Borodin Quartet (1 and 3 only)
Like many composers who lived after Beethoven, Brahms had a neurotic complex about the string quartet, a genre in which he abandoned twenty-some drafts in his desk drawer. (Heinz Becker identified this tendency of Brahms as "his horror of immature work.") The sense of competition with Beethoven seems to have hamstrung Brahms, in both formal and melodic terms, in a way that is not true of the chamber works with piano especially. As a result, the three quartets he did allow to see the light of day, although they have brilliant moments like the Romanze second movement of op. 51, no. 1, are not essential works even for fans of Brahms's chamber music. The Emerson Quartet has presented a worthy recording, but moments of stridency that distort some of the tunings among instruments mar some of the movements. That is a result of the Emerson's tendency -- formidable but vulnerable to emptiness -- toward pressing rhythmic drive, as in the opening movement of the C minor quartet.

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.


jfl said...

The Alban Berg Q.'s second recording (the more expensive EMI that you listed) is top notch. (Although the Leipzig Quartet is said to be very fine in these, too. I haven't heard them.)

I found the surprisingly foursquare and joyless Quintet to the the real downer on this disc... must give it another listen with perhaps a more open mind.

Charles T. Downey said...

I have not heard the Leipzig's recording either. As for the op. 34 quintet, this version has that Emerson drive to it, I agree. It's a big reading.

What do you think is the best recording of the work? Jando? Pollini?

jfl said...

Well, I don't know about "best" - but I do know that I like Curzon/Amadeus (BBC), La Gaia Scienza (W&W), Haas and the BerlinPhil8Oct members (Philips),

Pollini I always had the feeling I wanted to like it more than I actually did. Jando/Kodaly I've not heard. Schiff/Takacs is very fine, too -- but it's been too long since I've heard it... and now I feel I might be tempted to love it because I know how great the Takacs "must be" (Decca). There's an old Busch/Serkin that I'd like to listen to, despite its age. (Pearl)