Brahms, Mendelssohn: Piano Quartet in A, Op. 26; String Quintet in B flat, Op. 87

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COMPOSERS: Brahms,Mendelssohn
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Piano Quartet in A, Op. 26; String Quintet in B flat, Op. 87
PERFORMER: Lars Vogt (piano), Christian Tetzlaff, Isabelle Faust (violin), Hartmut Rohde, Stefan Fehlandt (viola), Heinrich Schiff, Gustav Rivinius (cello)
CATALOGUE NO: 557 7992
A star-studded cast of soloists comes burdened with the anticipation or hope of a frisson of electricity and flashes of pure inspiration. With a glittering line-up on this CD that includes Heinrich Schiff, Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt, you would certainly expect musical sparks to fly, and judging by the wildly enthusiastic response of the audience, these two performances – recorded at the 2003 Spannungen Festival in the extraordinary surroundings of the Heimbach hydroelectric power station in Germany’s Eifel Mountains – must have generated considerable adrenaline and excitement. But in the cold light of day, they don’t quite offer the level of musical insight one might have expected from such distinguished players. Despite Vogt’s thoughtful pianism, I found the first two movements of Brahms’s genial A major Piano Quartet disappointingly under-characterised and lacking in warmth, this latter feature perhaps exacerbated here by the rather glassy recording. Although the players seem more engaged in the scherzo and finale, my initial misgivings were merely confirmed after listening to alternative recordings. It’s quite rare for a comparison to shed such dramatic contrast in terms of musical insight, characterisation and colour, but in almost every conceivable regard the classic 1989 Sony release from Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax is preferable. Nowhere is the difference more tangible than in the slow movement where the American ensemble is far better attuned to the music’s oscillating moods of tenderness, passion and mystery. Mendelssohn’s late Quintet is a less emotionally complex work, although its slow movement charts an unexpected vein of melancholy. The Heimbach performance boasts some dazzling fiddle-playing from Tetzlaff in the outer movements, and plenty of charm and introspection elsewhere. Nonetheless, the Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion finds even greater nuance and subtlety in the music, while retaining the same level of technical dexterity as its more illustrious colleagues. Erik Levi

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