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Dip Your Ears, No. 92 (String Quartets: Brahms & Friends)

available at Amazon
Brahms / Dessoff, String Quartets op.51/2 and F-major, op.7 ,
Mandelring Quartett
audite 97505
I am – reluctantly – convinced of the merits of the Brahms String Quartet in a-minor op.51, no.2. I just have yet to be touched, charmed, or moved by it. I’ve tried to let the Emerson and the Takács String Quartets to do that for me, but they only offered excellence, not grit or inescapable passion. Three’s a charm though, and the third recording of the a-minor quartet I’ve come across this year may have done it for me.

When Brahms develops a 35 minute quartet out of just a few basic musical building blocks, the result is (or can be) an expressive stringency the kind of which got Hugo Wolf to declare Brahms the “undisputed master of composing without ideas” and even Britten to quip that it wasn’t bad Brahms he minded, but good Brahms that he couldn’t stand.

available at Amazon
Brahms / Herzogenberg, SQ4ts opp.67/1 & 42/2,
Mandelring Quartett

available at ArkivMusic
Brahms / Gernsheim, SQ4ts op.51/2 & A-minor, op.31,
Mandelring Quartett

Usually I’d snicker with delighted, if embarrassed agreement – at least where Brahms’ string quartets are concerned. (Compared to Anne Midgette's struggles, my coolness toward some Brahms must seem like sheer enthusiasm.) But the combination of cohesion and energy of the Mandelring Quartett (who played Brahms at the Library of Congress in 2006) makes for an unusually compelling, indeed: spellbinding performance. Brahms, for once, seems to successfully reach the pinnacle of a composer’s ambition that is the string quartet with op.51/2 — a string quartet that fascinated Schoenberg for its economy of means and made him famously declare Brahms ‘a progressive’. Now I will have to explore the other two volumes of their Brahms traversal – made only more attractive by their inclusion of string quartets of (forgotten) contemporaries of Brahms. If ever issued as a set – hopefully retaining the ‘fillers’ – it might well vie for the reference-recording spot with the Alban Berg Quartet’s EMI recording.

This disc is worth a strong recommendation for the Brahms a-minor alone. But there is more. Rather than point out there that the ‘filler’ on the Brahms is “this neat, unknown F.O.Dessoff”, the performance and the quartet deserve to be mentioned, praised, and recommended separately. In fact, I’d give this disc the same two thumbs up even if it only included either of the two quartets.

That’s not only because the playing is outstanding (the recordings are 9 years old and include the former cellist of the Quartet, but the CD was released only now), but also because Dessoff’s op.7 is much more than just an afterthought to the Brahms quartet: it’s a wonderful work that deserves to be smack-dab in the middle of the string quartet repertoire of more groups than just the Mandelring Quartett. Brahms himself, a friend of Dessoff’s, found to have “such an unassuming face that one hardly dare praise it out loud… It would greatly please me to have my name printed on the front page [ of this quartet] that is amiable smiling at me…”

Holger Best’s liner notes mention that Dessoff did not want to sully his reputation as great performer with a second-rate composition. He need not have worried in this case: The F-major quartet smiles amiably, indeed. All four movements are ear-catching, a joy to listen to, unpretentious, simple but not simplistic, full of joy but not silly.

What makes it so immediately and lastingly enjoyable is perhaps that skilled but still not so very seriously well crafted (Brahms) element in it, or the fact that it is perfectly romantic without being burdened with dreamy portentousness (Schumann, some may say).

The delicate pizzicato theme running through the opening Larghetto merges with beautiful lyrical lines for an exquisite slow movement. The Poco andantino has Viennese café-house mood and gaiety running through its veins (and that from a cool northern German!). The outer movements, a driving Allegro ben moderato and a busy Allegro con brio have less a personal touch to them but are more than adequate opening and closing statements. What else did this Dessoff compose???

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