WORKS: String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51/1; String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51/2
PERFORMER: Ludwig Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 8.554271
These are fluent, affectionate, rather plush performances, though not really outstanding ones. The difficulties Brahms experienced in perfecting his first published quartets are written deep into their expression, especially the tense and tragic C minor. There’s no point in exaggerating their Sturm und Drang. But the Ludwig Quartet, a French ensemble of obvious talent, leans the other way: the players seem to want to neutralise the heavier Germanic aspects of these works altogether.
This means they’re good in the intimate or serenade-like inner movements (the C minor’s Romanze is especially sensitively interpreted). The more dramatic structures of the outer movements lack electricity, though their textures are richly shaded. The tempi are mostly a little on the fast side, yet the impression the Ludwigs create is quite leisurely (and the exception, the first movement in the A minor, is taken so expansively it tends to drag). In short, one misses the pieces’ sinewy strength, and the insight and passion that the Borodin Quartet brings to them on Teldec. Unfortunately the Borodins’ versions are split up on two different discs. For both Op. 51 Quartets coupled together as here, the version which has impressed me most in the past couple of years is from the young Norwegian group, the Vertavo Quartet, on Simax. They’re recorded in clearer acoustics, too, which better suits the close-woven polyphony. Though Michael Jameson in the March issue hesitated to award them benchmark status, I do not. But at their bargain price, the Ludwigs are certainly worth considering if you like your Brahms sweet-toothed. Calum MacDonald