LABELS: Winter & Winter
WORKS: Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60; Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34
PERFORMER: La Gaia Scienza
CATALOGUE NO: 910 052-2
La Gaia Scienza offers ‘period’ Brahms, its pianist playing an 1842 Erard, presumably similar to the 1839 Graf Brahms inherited from Schumann and on which he composed these works. At least, he used it for the suppressed original form of the C minor Quartet, a work so personal, reflecting his early feelings of despair over his involvement with Clara Schumann, that he took nearly 20 years to perfect it. LGS turns in an exceptionally clean but occasionally rather clinical performance, stressing the work’s Classicism (no bad thing) but as if viewing it from the outside. The Mozart Piano Quartet, on the other hand, uses modern instruments (Brahms’s later preference) and seems totally involved: it’s a thrilling account, warmly recorded, and it does the spacious and seldom-heard A major Quartet equally proud.
But then La Gaia Scienza turns in an absolutely first-rate interpretation of the F minor Quintet. Here the Erard truly comes into its own, allowing very flexible articulation and excellent balance so the inner string parts really make their full effect; and the players’ involvement is total. In a very lively acoustic, this riveting account is actually one of the best currently available, coming a very close second to my favoured version by Eliso Virsaladze and the Borodin Quartet. In the quartets, the Mozart offers better value, though not quite equalling Laredo-Stern-Ma-Ax on Sony. La Gaia Scienza also gets the prize for the year’s most unhelpful booklet notes for listeners coming fresh to these important works – quotations of two comments Brahms made, obliquely comparing Op. 60 with Goethe’s Werther, followed by a single editorial sentence: ‘Brahms had a horrible problem with women’. So he did; but he wrote music too! Calum MacDonald