Brahms: Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25; Piano Quartet in A, Op. 26; Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60

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LABELS: Arabesque
WORKS: Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25; Piano Quartet in A, Op. 26; Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60
PERFORMER: Ruth Laredo (piano); Shanghai Quartet
All three of these piano quartets are to some extent young Brahms. Despite its later opus number, the C minor Quartet is basically an expanded reworking of a piano quartet Brahms wrote when he was 22, and still in the grip of his hopeless passion for Clara Schumann (Robert Schumann, Brahms’s mentor and first champion, was still alive, but by now confined in a private mental asylum). So the Brahms revealed here is more the youthful Romantic than the contained neo-classicist of later years – Brahms in the days before he grew that famous patrician beard. These performances are well attuned to the stormy, volatile emotional world of the early Brahms. The C minor Quartet is particularly impressive: impassioned, searching, with surging momentum in the scherzo and finale. There’s a terrific, gritty energy in the gypsy finale of the G minor Quartet, while in the slow movement of the A major, the mood-swings – from ardour to dark mystery – are almost Schubertian. But there are other sides to these works – a more shadowy, introspective longing in the Intermezzo of Op. 25, and warm gentleness in the first movement of Op. 26 – where I’m not so convinced by Laredo and the Shanghai players: even in early Brahms you can be too Byronic. And the recordings don’t help. Ruth Laredo is placed backwardly; fair enough, she can raise a powerful fortissimo, but in quieter passages she sounds muffled and remote. The strings on the other hand are dry and hard-edged – too close? A shame, because Laredo and the Shanghai’s version of the C minor Quartet in particular is a powerful, very plausible alternative to the more restrained but much-admired Stern-Jaime Laredo-Ma-Ax version on Sony. Still, it’s Stern’s team which gives the best all-round view of these three works. If it’s a recommendable complete set you want, go for the Sony disc. Stephen Johnson