Brahms: Complete String Quartets and Piano Quintet

LABELS: Orchid
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms: Complete String Quartets and Piano Quintet
WORKS: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34; String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1; String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2; String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 67
PERFORMER: Peter Laul (piano); Gringolts Quartet


Brahms’s String Quartets have come in for more critical stick than any of his other chamber works – perhaps more than all the others put together. The recurring theme is that they’re really orchestral works manqué: Brahms may have wrestled Beethoven to the ground when it came to writing symphonies, but here the giant shadow proved too inhibiting. Listen to the Gringolts Quartet in the Op. 51 No. 2 and Op. 67 Quartets and you may conclude that they’ve simply not been played right. There’s so much sensitive give and take between the four instruments here, so much intimacy and subtle variation of colour, that the feeling is these are Romantic chamber gems comparable with Schumann’s three Quartets. In the first movement of Op. 67 the shifts in rhythmic patterns are handled with the kind of supple freedom even the most refined orchestral conductor could hardly match. There’s humour, too, especially in the finale, with its teasingly ‘incomplete’ theme.

Ilya Gringolts and his team can’t quite perform the same miracle with Op. 51, No. 1, but by going all out for Sturm und Drang, while at the same time working hard to keep the textures clear (aided by the admirable recordings), they show that it’s still remarkable music, however you choose to categorise it in genre terms. The only let-down is the Piano Quintet, which feels overly fastidious in places. The approach is very similar, but the piano in particular feels somewhat eviscerated – maybe the recording doesn’t help so much this time. Overall, though, a warm recommendation.


Stephen Johnson