Mendelssohn, Brahms

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COMPOSERS: Brahms,Mendelssohn
LABELS: ASV Quicksilva
PERFORMER: Schubert Ensemble of London
The Schubert Ensemble of London has always provided good value, and this reissue contains much to enjoy, particularly in the astoundingly precocious Mendelssohn Quartet, dating from 1825, when the composer was 15. There’s plenty of verve and drive, the characterisation is vivid and instrumental balances are exemplary, on the whole, though the pianist is sometimes rather too prominent in purely accompanimental passages. The Brahms, too, has many virtues, but here an excessively four-square approach to phrasing, present but only occasionally distracting in the Mendelssohn, moves to centre stage, as it were, exacting a sometimes heavy toll when it comes to that asymmetrical buoyancy of rhythm which Brahms’s textures require for a true sense of momentum to be maintained. The late Hans Keller’s allocation of one accented beat per phrase may on the face of it seem a little exaggerated (characteristically) but its basic wisdom is unassailable – and that one accented beat will only rarely come at the beginning. Nor will the relatively unaccented beats be equally unaccented, any more than the accented beats will be equally accented. More perhaps than any other factor, with the possible exception of intonation, it’s precisely such minutiae of rhythmic emphasis which separate the very good performances from the great ones. And the decisive difference can be amazingly small. For proof, one need only turn to the star-studded Ax-Stern-Laredo-Ma partnership on Sony, whose account of the Brahms is irresistibly compelling and of immense but unobtrusive sophistication – lyrical, rhythmic, textural and colouristic. Jeremy Siepmann