Classical CD Reviews

BRAHMS: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25; Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60 – The Nash Ensemble – Onyx

Probably the best Brahms chamber music disc I will hear all year.

Published on March 8, 2009

BRAHMS: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25; Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60 – The Nash Ensemble – Onyx
BRAHMS: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25; Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60 – The Nash Ensemble – Onyx 4029, 74:03 [Distrib. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Sleek, seamless Brahms from The Nash Ensemble, recorded 10-12 January 2007 at the Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, England – which proves be an acoustically warm, ambient sound space. The principals of The Nash Ensemble–Ian Brown, piano; Marianne Thorsen, violin; Lawrence Power, viola; and Paul Watkins, cello–bring an ardent, eminently stylistic presence to these inscriptions, which rival the more “formal” Viennese renditions by the likes of Paul Badura-Skoda and company.

We have a sense of hearing the miraculous G Minor Piano Quartet (1861) for the first time, savoring its deliberate ambiguities of major and minor, its Schubertian turbulence of emotion, its false sun in D Major. The blend of colors, their individuality of timbre and mixed interdependence, continually charm and provoke our delight. The C Minor Intermezzo moves with a suave surety, the piano part beautifully subdued to accommodate the often busy, metrically askew impulses from the strings. The main theme contains an anagram of Clara Schumann’s name invented by her husband, Robert. The easy fluidity of the figures quite disarms us who look for the morose, angst-ridden Brahms in every composition in a minor key.

The Andante con moto casts off any remaining clouds, offering an E-flat lyric against a pompous–albeit diaphanously rendered–march in C Major. Already, the Hungarian, populist-gypsy impulse infiltrates the music, in the chromatic spaces between the ardent melancholy. Marianne Thorsen’s violin solo becomes quite incandescent in the latter pages of this generous movement. Finally, a briskly zestful Hungarian Rondo, one Joachim claimed “beat me on my own turf.” Piano and cello vie as to who can execute the more brilliant upward runs; then the piano sails over plucked chords and tremolos in the manner of a Lisztian etude. The foot-stomping ritornello breaks into another martial, gypsy frenzy as well as melancholy nostalgia, rife with what Hungarians call zal. Hard to conceive, the blistering pace increases only to–for the intensely lunatic coda–gather up its forces from the keyboard upwards to call on supernatural after-burners and immolate our Brahmsian sensibilities with delicious madness.

The tempestuous C Minor Piano Quartet (1874) evolved out of a frightful passion Brahms harbored for Clara Schumann, a forbidden love that inspired suicidal conceits appropriate to Young Werther. Within the lilting theme of the Allegro ma no troppo’s piano and violin figures, one will find the constituents of the “Clara” theme that inhabits the G Minor Quartet in happier guise. Warm, melancholy cello playing from Paul Watkins marks this elegy wrought from the composer’s personal storm and stress. Not since the D Minor Piano Concerto had Brahms penned such terrifying descents in the Abyss. Even the progression to C Major does not alleviate the desolate gloom, what Nietzsche called “Brahms’s penchant for the unsatisfied.” The wicked Scherzo shows off pianist Ian Brown’s quicksilver, biting attacks–as well as a vicious rasping in Lawrence Power’s viola– a passion that subdues only briefly in the countersubject, since there is no trio to relieve the visceral intensity of the composer’s furor.  Paul Watkins’ cello announces the tender Andante, one of those magical Brahms consolations–by way of Schubert–we also find in the B-flat Piano Concerto. Marianne Thorsen’s violin rules for the opening of the Finale: Allegro, instituting a feverish chorale whose few moments of respite still quaver and quake with hallucinatory agues. The mix becomes sardonic as well as impassioned, as close to Liszt’s Mephisto as Brahms dares. That this music could line the walls of Dante’s Inferno has become palpably obvious, a moment when Brahms has cut the emotional leash that perpetually binds his classical ego. Probably the best Brahms chamber music disc I will hear all year.

– Gary Lemco




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