Brahms: String Quartets, Op. 51/1 & 2

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Simax
WORKS: String Quartets, Op. 51/1 & 2
PERFORMER: Vertavo String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: PSC 1156
With critically acclaimed recordings of Nielsen and Schumann already behind them, the four women of Norway’s Vertavo String Quartet begin a new Bartók series in 1999, and will also set down quartets by Grieg and Debussy. Brave plans indeed, but few works – including Bartók’s six quartets – have sounded the death-knell for as many aspiring quartets as the intellectually challenging and technically elusive Op. 51 pairing by the obsessively self-critical Johannes Brahms.

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The Vertavo players are eloquent and passionate Brahmsians, taking a dramatically charged and irrepressibly motoric view of the C minor work, strongly rooted in received performing traditions, yet still sufficiently idiosyncratic to engage the listener fully. Particularly impressive is its mastery of dynamic nuance and shading, but don’t expect to hear ‘conventional’ Brahms sonorities here. There’s a reassuring avoidance of that glutinous, corpulent playing style often misapplied to Brahms; here, it’s the sinewy angst and headlong impetus of the music that registers so palpably.

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The Vertavo’s account of Op. 51/2 (warmer and more genial foil to the bracing C minor quartet) is equally charismatic, and were it not for long-established and probably unbeatable alternatives, these fine performances might have warranted benchmark commendation. Hear the Vertavo as a priority (recorded sound is outstanding), but don’t expect it to eclipse the sublime mastery of the Juilliard Quartet’s performances of these works, part of a beautifully engineered two-disc set from Sony. Also included there are Brahms’s B flat Quartet, Op. 67, summit of his attainments in the genre, and Charles Neidich’s irresistibly compelling performance of the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115. Michael Jameson