Brahms: String Quintet in F, Op. 88; String Quintet in G, Op. 111

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WORKS: String Quintet in F, Op. 88; String Quintet in G, Op. 111
PERFORMER: Leipzig Quartet; Hartmut Rohde (viola)
CATALOGUE NO: 307 1251-2
Brahms’s two string quintets are probably his least-known string chamber works, yet contain some of the richest music of his full maturity. Op. 88 – something of a Cinderella in Brahms studies – also sets up poignant resonances with his early years through its middle movement, a reworking of two early piano pieces Clara Schumann had played. These must be among the finest recorded performances the Quintets have received. The Leipzig Quartet’s discography already includes distinguished versions of the Schoenberg quartets, and he certainly owed something to these Brahms pieces, in which every note has its place and meaning. The players conjure up a marvellous range of tone colour, from the sweeping, almost orchestral surge of Op. 111’s opening to the crepuscular half-lights and intimacies to which these works often turn: listen to the start of the development in the same movement, an uncanny moment that looks towards Verklärte Nacht. They bring out the inner parts in the often complex writing better than their various rivals (of whom the front-runners are the Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion and the Hagen Quartet with Gérard Caussé on DG). The musicians surpass them also in the meaningful pointing of Brahms’s enlivening cross-rhythms: those in the first movement of Op. 88, for example, are a joy to hear. But it’s the sheer poetry they find in the scores that makes their interpretations very special – the hushed ending of Op. 88’s central movement, the refined melancholy of Op. 111’s Adagio and Allegretto have perhaps never been better done. And while other groups (the Raphael, for instance) tend to make the work’s finale a joyful, heedless emotional release, the Leipzig here continues the thoughtful mood, tracing the old-age pathos that runs through this busy dance music like a half-hidden thread. Calum MacDonald