Brahms - Piano Quintet, String Quintet no.2

The Europadisc Review

Brahms - Piano Quintet, String Quintet no.2

Pavel Haas Quartet, Boris Giltburg (piano), Pavel Nikl (viola)

£13.50

Four-and-a-half years after their award-winning account of quintets by Antonín Dvořák, the Pavel Haas Quartet together with pianist Boris Giltburg and founder quartet member Pavel Nikl return in two great chamber works by Dvořák’s mentor, Johannes Brahms. Both the middle-period Piano Quintet in F minor, op.34 (1864), and the later String Quintet no.2 in G major, op.111 (1890), represent Brahms the chamber composer at the peak of his game, and both works are well-represented on disc. Yet the Pavel Haas Quartet once again bring their su... read more

Four-and-a-half years after their award-winning account of quintets by Antonín Dvořák, the Pavel Haas Quartet together with pianist Boris Giltburg and founder quartet member Pavel Nikl return in ... read more

Brahms - Piano Quintet, String Quintet no.2

Brahms - Piano Quintet, String Quintet no.2

Pavel Haas Quartet, Boris Giltburg (piano), Pavel Nikl (viola)

Four-and-a-half years after their award-winning account of quintets by Antonín Dvořák, the Pavel Haas Quartet together with pianist Boris Giltburg and founder quartet member Pavel Nikl return in two great chamber works by Dvořák’s mentor, Johannes Brahms. Both the middle-period Piano Quintet in F minor, op.34 (1864), and the later String Quintet no.2 in G major, op.111 (1890), represent Brahms the chamber composer at the peak of his game, and both works are well-represented on disc. Yet the Pavel Haas Quartet once again bring their superior technical capabilities and musical insight to bear on familiar music in enlivening and enriching ways. Recorded in Prague’s Domovina Studio in November 2021, these are well-balanced recordings, finely focused yet with an ideal sense of warmth to the sound.

The Piano Quintet itself started life as a string quintet, in the Schubertian line-up of two violins, viola and two cellos. But Brahms’s friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, felt that the sound needed more rhythmic definition than an ensemble of strings could provide, and Brahms appears to have destroyed this first strings-only version of the work. He then reworked it as a sonata for two pianos, but Clara Schumann (who had been so taken with the string quintet version), tried it out together with the conductor Hermann Levi and found it wanting: ‘Many of the most beautiful ideas are lost on the piano, recognisable only to the performer, and not enjoyable for the audience. … But please, dear Johannes, do agree just this time, and rework the piece once more.’ Brahms duly obliged by recasting the work as the Piano Quintet we know today, giving us the best of both worlds, the luminous colours of the strings with the rhythmic incisiveness of the piano, while this time preserving the two-piano sonata version for separate publication.

In its final version the Piano Quintet, in the stormy Beethovenian key of F minor (surely a nod to the ‘Appassionata’ Sonata), can sometimes feel like a would-be piano concerto, with the piano often dominating proceedings. On this new account, however, Giltburg’s Fazioli instrument – not too closely miked – achieves a subtle blend with the strings, so that there’s a markedly less concertante, more collegial feel than on many rival accounts. Indeed, in the turbulent first movement it is Luosha Fang’s deliciously sinewy viola playing that lends a distinctive edge to the middle textures, while Peter Jarůšek’s thrumming cello pizzicato also cuts through to enlivening effect. For all its Sturm und Drang drama, it is the quieter moments of this performance that often prove the most remarkable, nowhere more so than at the subdued start to the development section. Giltburg’s playing throughout is superbly animated yet never pushy, the general application of tempo flexibility well-judged, and Jarůšek’s playing in particular notable for its subtlety in music which can too often seem overblown.

The account of the Andante second movement – one of Brahms’s loveliest creations – is beautifully dreamy without lapsing into torpor. In the Scherzo, the players bring out a wealth of pointillistic detail without impeding the movement’s flow, giving it a real lift and rhythmic intensity (Joachim would surely have approved), and this sense of buoyancy is maintained in the more lyrically expansive Trio. The Finale opens with an uncannily eerie slow introduction as the music gropes its way through an unsettling sequence of harmonies, to emerge at the F minor of the Allegro non troppo main section, and for the final Presto onslaught Giltburg and his colleagues really ratchet up the tension without letting the music run out of control.

After this marvellously invigorating yet well-balanced account of the Piano Quintet, the G major String Quintet (scored according to the Mozartian model of two violins, two violas and cello), opens with a Mendelssohnian joyfulness, with exuberant violin and viola tremolos over an energetically leaping cello theme. Joachim thought this opening would be too taxing, but Brahms stuck to his guns, and if Joachim had heard this performance he’d have realised why: this is life-affirming in the way only late Brahms can be. The rustling sonorities of the development section are a particular joy and, as in the Piano Quintet, the players are superb at charting the subtle changes of mood and texture. The Adagio, opening with a gypsy-flavoured viola solo, and featuring some exquisite flautando playing from pianissimo violins, is richly textured, but never cloying. The intermezzo-like third movement is a faltering waltz, with Veronika Jarůšková’s soulful violin playing a notable strength; the trio section, featuring the violas in thirds, eventually evaporates before the return of the waltz.

The ’gypsy style’ of the Vivace fourth movement has been much commented on (Max Kalbeck thought it evoked ‘Brahms in the Prater’, Vienna’s amusement park), but it hides rhythmic complexities and subtleties, even moments of quasi-fugal counterpoint and antiphonal effects, that could only have come from the sophisticated hand of Brahms. The various strands are drawn together yet individually highlighted with the expertise that seems to come naturally to these players. The elation of the final two pages is palpable, bringing to a thrilling close one of the most uplifting and outstanding Brahms chamber discs of recent years, and just as urgently recommended!

  • Avie
  • Chandos
  • Grand Piano
  • Pavel Haas Quartet
  • Testament

The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

When is a symphony not a symphony? (A Question of Genre)

When is a symphony not a symphony? (A Question of Genre)  18th May 2022

18th May 2022

These days, genre looms large in the music world. It’s an affliction that looms large in the world of popular music, with various new types of pop and rock music emerging on an almost annual basis. In classical music, the situation appears to be more stable, at least on first appearances. The venerable Gramophone magazine has for many years divided its reviews into orchestral, chamber, instrumental (just one player), vocal (anything sung that isn’t opera) and opera, with a separate section for ‘Jazz & World Music’. Other publications go further: BBC Music, for example, separates concertos from orchestral, and devotes a separate section to historical recordings.

Awards go even further, with categories for early and contemporary music, choral and solo vocal, best newcomer, lifetime achievement, and so on. This enables yet more prizes to be awarded, in an industry that... read more

View Older Posts

Gramophone Recording of the Month

Played on Record Review