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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Quartet in A minor for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello (fragment) (1876) [11:38]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Quartet in E flat major for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 47 (1842) [26:36]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Quartet No. 1 in G minor for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 25 (1861) [38:57]
Daniel Hope (violin); Paul Neubauer (viola); David Finckel (cello); Wu Han (piano)
rec. live, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall, New York, 1 and 3 March 2015
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 4609 [77:26]

Those attending the concerts from which these recordings were taken would doubtless have been happy to have this as a souvenir. The performances are all more than simply professional, but does this justify releasing these for the general public? For one thing the Schumann and Brahms piano quartets have received a number of sterling accounts over the years. It would have to be something special to merit this release. The rarity here is the Mahler fragment that gives little indication of the famous composer of symphonies and songs. It sounds more like Schumann and Brahms than Mahler and really doesn’t do much for me. Its most unusual feature is the violin’s cadenza later in the movement. The Chamber Society of Lincoln Center’s musicians play it with commitment and do all they can for it.

Schumann’s Piano Quartet is one of my favourite nineteenth-century chamber works. Although I also really admire the Piano Quintet, I have always had a soft spot for the quartet. Wu Han and company turn in a vigorous performance that lacks an ideal blend of sound. One is more aware of individual soloists than a chamber ensemble. Part of the problem may be the actual recording that highlights individuals versus the group. I compared this with my current favourite CD of this piece, the Florestan Trio with violist Thomas Riebl (Hyperion). They demonstrate well what’s missing here, even if at times Susan Tomes’ piano dominates when it should accompany. Overall, though, they are more joyous than the current artists. Their second movement, Scherzo, is a case in point. It really sparkles with the Florestan. Also, the sublime cello solo that begins the third movement is played beautifully and simply without excessive vibrato. It radiates warmth, whereas David Finckel’s, as accomplished as it is, sounds stressful with more vibrato than is needed. My desert island choice for this work unfortunately has never appeared on CD to my knowledge: Leonard Pennario, piano; Eudice Shapiro, violin; Sanford Schonbach, viola; and Victor Gottlieb, cello. I listened to my old Capitol LP and could still appreciate the performance through all the pops and crackle. That LP had an equally wonderful performance of Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1 on the reverse side. The Florestan’s Schumann is almost as good and in much better sound. I fear the current artists fall some way short of those others.

Of Brahms’ three piano quartets, I have always preferred the later two to the Piano Quartet No. 1. It has always seemed to me to be too big for its medium. Indeed, Schoenberg orchestrated it and that version has attained notable popularity. That said, I find the orchestral version overdone with its added percussion and will stick with the original whenever I want to hear the piece. The present artists seem more suited to this work than to the Schumann. They are especially convincing in the Hungarian rondo finale, which they play with abandon. Elsewhere, though, they can sound overwrought. Whenever the dynamics become loud, the sound turns harsh and Daniel Hope’s violin strident. A comparison with another group of virtuosi — Emanuel Ax, Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo, and Yo-yo Ma (Sony) — demonstrates what is missing here. Although the musicians in that quartet were or are stars in their own right, they really play as a group and their blend is close to ideal. They bring more light and shade to their account than the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center musicians do. Again part of this may be due to the recorded sound that emphasizes the individuals over the ensemble. Even in the finale Ax and company impress with their more controlled martial section, following the opening rondo theme, and then phrase the lyrical passage lovingly before conveying well the urgency of the concluding presto. There is not enough contrast with the present group so that the ending loses some of its punch, even though the audience bursts in with applause barely after the last note has sounded.

Deutsche Grammophon provides an attractive booklet with photos and fine notes by Dr. Richard E. Rodda. This is not enough to recommend the CD, except for those who attended the concerts or wish to hear these particular artists in this repertoire.

Leslie Wright


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