ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2
PERFORMER: New Zealand Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 8.573433
Brahms’s First String Quartet came out when he was 40. Beethoven’s long shadow hung over this genre just as much as over the symphony, and it seems that Brahms worked on the form over a long period of time before acceding to his friend Joseph Joachim’s pleas for some additions to the repertoire. A tribute to Joachim finds its way into the Quartet No. 2, which includes the Hungarian violinist’s personal musical emblem, F-A-E, standing for frei aber einsam (free but lonely), plus a distinctly Hungarian slant to the final two movements. These are subtle and powerful compositions, as full of shades of emotion as Brahms’s symphonies, as firmly wrought in technical terms and almost as conceptually substantial. Quartet No. 1 shares its key with the Symphony No. 1 and like that work possesses a driven quality, an impassioned matter-of-life-and-death eloquence.
The New Zealand String Quartet finds its chief strengths in the balance of voices, the conversational nature of the writing and the flexible spread of weight between the instruments. Yet these pieces’ distinctive personalities could perhaps come through more strongly; the playing is certainly committed and faithful, but hot on the heels of an exceptionally stunning recording of the C minor work by the Brodsky Quartet (on Chandos) it feels by comparison less powerfully defined and even somewhat impersonal at times, lacking also a comparable richness and variety of tone.