Through Brahms 1-7
Now in its tenth year, Music@Menlo is an annual three-week chamber music festival that draws a distinguished roster of mostly American soloists to the institute in the San Francisco Bay Area each summer. The items in this seven-CD collection are all drawn from the 2011 festival, which centred on Brahms, his antecedents and influences – though, curiously, not a note of Beethoven is included in almost eight hours of repertoire. Recordings tend to be fairly close-miked, which means the music can occasionally get a bit on top of you, but the sound, for the most part, is vivid and clear, with no hint of audience noise.
Each CD aims to focus on a different aspect of Brahms – some more successfully than others. The first disc culminates in Brahms’s most Schubertian score, the songful Sextet in B flat, so it seems a bit odd to preface it with some lesser-known songs of Schumann. Brahms’s two piano version of his Quintet in F minor concludes the second disc, but the highlight is three each of the four-hand versions of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances and Dvoπák’s Slavonic Dances in readings by Wu Han and Jon Kimura Parker of such crispness and sparkle, you wish they had recorded complete sets of both.
The third disc opens soberly with the trio sonata from Bach’s Musical Offering, then kicks over the traces in gypsy-style pieces by Kreisler, Wieniawski and Schulenburg, on the way to a fervent reading of Brahms’s Hungarian-tinged Piano Trio in C major. Brahms’s golden Zwei Gesänge with viola obbligato, and the lilting Liebeslieder Waltzes feature on the fourth disc, plus items by Schubert, Schumann and Rachmaninov. And a rhapsodic account of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor by Laurence Lesser opens the fifth disc, with the programme running via Schoenberg’s feisty 12-tone Phantasy for violin and piano, and Ravel’s Tzigane to John Harbison’s post-Brahmsian Piano Quintet (1981).
The sixth disc includes Clara Schumann’s agreeable Piano Trio in G minor and a fine reading of Brahms’s glorious late String Quintet in G major, with Paul Watkins on cello. The viola player Paul Neubauer and pianist Gilbert Kalish open the seventh and final disc with a reflective account of the Viola Sonata No. 2 in E flat; the collection concludes with a more recessed recording of the Clarinet Quintet in B minor, with David Schifrin playing clarinet. Impossible to mention every work, let alone every performer; but the general quality of music-making is high.