The Piano Quartets
Primrose Piano Quartet
Meridian CDE 84650/1-2 123:47 mins (2 discs)
These dedicated performances aim to combine historical and modern approaches. John Thwaites uses three different pianos of the period, each with a notably transformative effect on the music. The Ehrbar instrument for the C minor Quartet is wonderfully warm and resonant; the work is placed first, according to order of composition rather than numbering (Brahms first drafted it in 1855, in thrall to the Schumann family). The Streicher for the official No. 1 in G minor is mellower by far than the impression this extrovert work often produces on the modern piano; and the Blüthner for the A major Quartet provides a soundworld that is chewy, woody and clear.
The performers draw out the vivid characters of the music, often to a splendid degree: for instance, the rapid, whispered opening of the G minor quartet’s ‘Intermezzo’ and the wonderfully OTT ‘alla Zingarese’ finale; or the intimacy as well as the songfulness of the cello solo of the C minor’s Andante. Yet not all the string players sound entirely at home. The group asserts in the booklet notes that they are pursuing spontaneity and freedom rather than clinical perfection, but not all listeners will appreciate the instances of scratchiness and blurred ensemble, and the expansive expressiveness of Thwaites at the piano is not always wholly matched.