Brahms, Henze

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COMPOSERS: Brahms,Henze
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34
PERFORMER: Peter Serkin (piano); Guarneri Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 446 710-2
The main point of interest here is Hans Werner Henze’s Piano Quintet, completed in 1991 for Peter Serkin and the Guarneri Quartet. It is a substantial work lasting a little more than 20 minutes, and reflecting, Henze says, his experience of 19th-century forms. The music itself is not in any sense backward-glancing, but it conveys a feeling of continual growth and transformation. Of the three movements, it is perhaps the last that makes the most immediate impression: a ghostly parade of filigree passagework for the piano, and ethereal string harmonics. At the end, the piece is disturbingly cut off as though in mid-stream – an effect that is the more striking in view of the fact that the preceding movements both come to an emphatic conclusion.

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The performance of the Brahms shows Peter Serkin to be as much of a thoughtful individualist as ever. The tempo of the opening movement, in particular, is unusually slow – taking its cue, no doubt, from Brahms’s four-to-the-bar allegro non troppo marking. All the same, it’s difficult not to feel that this is music that needs to generate rather more energy and tension. There is much to admire elsewhere in the performance – not least the hushed atmosphere of mystery at the opening of the scherzo – but the players have been badly let down by the recording engineer. The cavernous piano sound, in particular, is a botched affair. The recently released 1974 ‘live’ performance by Clifford Curzon and the Amadeus Quartet shows just how much more gripping this piece can be. Misha Donat