WORKS: Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25; Piano Quartet in A, Op. 26; Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60
PERFORMER: Menuhin Festival Piano Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CD 50-9701-02
These lucid, engaging accounts of the three Brahms Piano Quartets can survive comparison with most recommendable alternatives, save one. The Menuhin Festival Piano Quartet still has to face searching, and probably unsurpassable competition from Emanuel Ax, Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo and Yo-Yo Ma, whose combined powers put their Sony survey well beyond the rest of the field.
The Menuhins turn in reliable, effective performances of all three works. Especially memorable is their eruptive, headlong romp through the Magyar finale of Op. 25; beyond this strutting csardas, it’s still easy to see why the formal perfection and thematic richness of this work so endeared it to Arnold Schoenberg, who orchestrated it in 1937. The first disc of this Claves package is also home to Brahms’s last essay in the genre, the C minor Quartet, Op. 60; like his First Symphony (in the same key), it was long in gestation, and was endlessly demanding of its creator – ‘Imagine someone who would like to shoot himself, because there is nothing more that can be done…,’ lamented Brahms to his friend Hermann Dieters in 1868. This deeply committed performance, imbued with ample spontaneity and inventiveness is fully absorbing.
Good as they are in the A major Quartet, Op. 26, on the second disc, again the Menuhins don’t yet reveal that intuitive mastery of line and phrasing that make Ax, Stern, Laredo and Ma so inexpressibly compelling (particularly in Op. 26’s sublime Adagio) throughout this trilogy. On balance this set won’t disappoint unless you’ve already sampled the allure and open-hearted grandeur of Sony’s matchless offerings. Michael Jameson