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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor Op 25 (1861) [36:45]
Piano Quartet No 2 in A major Op 26 (1861) [46:48]
Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor Op 60 (1875) [30:56]
Eric Le Sage (piano), Pierre Fouchenneret (violin), Lise Berthaud (viola), François Salque (cello)
rec. 5 March 2017, Maladerie St Lazare, Beauvais, France
Reviewed as a digital download
B RECORDS LBM011 [67:41+46:48]

In my recent review of volume 9 of this complete Brahms chamber music project, I expressed my enthusiasm to explore the earlier volumes. What better place to start than with Volume 1 and with what I regard as the jewel in the crown of Brahms’ chamber music, the piano quartets.

First, a word about the project itself. The four performers involved in this first volume were its main instigators. The idea was to create a kind of troupe to perform all of the Brahms chamber works rather than spread them across a wide range of different performers. This brings a continuity of experience to the performances and considerable cross fertilisation across genres that are normally kept separate. Eric Le Sage, the pianist, must now have experience of immersion in Brahms’ writing for the piano like few others have had. I think this intensity of engagement with the composer shows in all these recordings and I will have more to say on this subject later in considering individual performances. For now, I will content myself with noting the esprit de corps that runs through all the recordings. If you think of Brahms’ chamber music as a bit like brown beer, think again.

I will start with the Third Piano Quartet, partly because it allows an opportunity to make some general comments about this set and partly because it is one of my favourite works by Brahms. It helps that this account of it is a real cracker.

The Third may be the most purely Romantic music Brahms ever wrote. Even its somewhat convoluted birth is rich with Romantic overtones. The composer originally wrote and abandoned an opening movement in C-sharp minor, a movement that eventually became the first movement of the finished Third Piano Quartet. That movement dates to the time of the first two piano quartets, even though the rest of the work wasn’t completed until over a decade later by which time the exotic key of C-sharp minor had dropped down to plain old C minor.

That isn’t quite the whole story. As Jan Stafford points out in his engrossing biography of Brahms, in the writings of that arch Romantic, ETA Hoffmann, the composer character Johannes Kreisler (note the first name!) writes but abandons a trio in C-sharp minor. A coincidence? Possibly if we take the gruff, bearded, no nonsense Brahms at face value. For this is a man who in his youth styled himself as Young Kreisler. The music itself argues against his older self.

The spirit of the Schumanns hovers over this score, or more accurately the spirit of Clara Schumann, the first and almost certainly greatest love of his life, as filtered through the music of her husband and Brahms’ musical mentor, Robert. The quotations of Robert Schumann’s Clara theme in this opening movement can’t be an accident. I see this whole work as a kind of musical exorcism of Brahms’ feelings for Clara. As if he were mourning what might have been but now couldn’t be. It is as if Brahms revisited that early movement with the express purpose of a reckoning with the passions of those early days and then to move on. Whether any of this is more than idle speculation is unprovable but what we get is an emotionally torrential work in the high Romantic style. Of course being Brahms this revisiting doesn’t have an inch of spare fat on it. This is part of its attraction: it is an almost unrelenting outpouring of great music minus the waffle that so often clogs up lesser music from the era.

It is also a work that could have been designed for the musical gifts of Le Sage, Fouchenneret, Berthaud and Salque. The brooding atmosphere they evoke at the opening catches the essence of this surprisingly neglected work perfectly and from there on they don’t let it slip. The resigned slump with which the opening movement ends, leaving matters unresolved, is awe-inspiring here and that is before the second movement heaves into view. Le Sage and colleagues play this short, concentrated but powerful movement as if it were one long-breathed tragic phrase. The slow movement, one of Brahms’ loveliest, is similarly broad in approach. Throughout the volumes of this project I have heard so far, these musicians have a tendency to take their time over Brahms’ more lyrical inspirations, and always to the composer’s benefit. They also capture a lingering sense of unease in this slow movement, which links it to the work as a whole. If you want to sample the sensitivity displayed with regard to this glorious music, try the last minute or so of the finale. The quiet piano runs remind us of the grim scherzo of the Second Piano Concerto before disappearing into a dark shadow of longing. The older, sadder composer steps in to end matters with a peremptory chord as if to say ‘Enough of all this old nonsense!’ The effect is about as powerful as Brahms gets.

In the G minor Quartet, the first one, we are in much more familiar territory. It is worth recalling that Brahms brought this quartet and its partner, the A major, with him to Vienna as his calling card. Little wonder he caused such a stir. In no sense are either of these quartets early works. The emotional, Romantic side of Brahms may have the upper hand over the more severe classical aspect of his musical personality compared to the works of his middle age but they are works of great genius.

In some ways the G minor is the ideal introduction to the often overlooked world of the composer’s chamber music. A dark brooding opening is followed by a haunting, twilit intermezzo of a kind Brahms made his own. The slow movement is a kind of two-for-one arrangement – a lyrical opening giving way to almost martial music. The famous Hungarian-tinged finale is a riot from start to its wild conclusion, virtually a piano concerto in all but name, complete with dazzling cadenzas.

The French musicians on this CD take a more measured view of the work than the recent scintillating account by the Notos Quartett on Sony (19439848002 - review). It is reasonably pointless to try and work which is the better version. Get them both and you won’t be disappointed. Gilels and members of the Amadeus Quartet have been my main point of comparison in this work (4743582, 5 CDs) and they still sound glorious. Gilels’ leonine tone is near ideal for Brahms. Their view is even more stately than Le Sage and friends, but no detail is missed, no rhythm unsprung. My highest praise for this new version is that it easily stands comparison with what I regard as the best of the past.

As with the Third Piano Quartet, the performers on this new recording are very much in tune with the storms and passions of this music. Their version of the second movement is particularly successful in evoking its shadowy, elusive world, hinting at darker buried pain. But they work up a real Hungarian storm in the finale too. Their view of this music clearly relishes the tangy melodies and stomping rhythms as much as the bravura piano writing.

The A major Piano Quartet, written as one of a pair with the G minor, is one of the most overlooked of the composer’s major works and, make no mistake, it is a major work. Like the second of the Brahms string sextets, it shows the influence of Schubert, not least in its “heavenly length” (to use Schumann’s description of Schubert). I would imagine it is this length that partly accounts for its lack of popularity. Why programme a work that, at around three quarters of an hour, would take up half the concert when the dazzling finale of the G minor is guaranteed to bring the house down?

This is Brahms in expansive mood. The only equivalent in the orchestral music is the first movement of the Second symphony. I hear the influence of Schubert’s great G major Piano Sonata D894 in the opening movement’s making the most of its opening motif (it hardly qualifies as a theme). It combines similar technical means with a similar mood, combining the relaxed with the sublime.

The slow movement ranks with the very best Brahms slow movements in any genre. It has superb, long-limbed themes, deep mystery and consummate delicacy in execution. Le Sage, Fouchenneret, Berthaud and Salque are clearly as in love with it as I am. The final cadence of the whole movement is visionary in their hands. Everything feels just right.

There are other extremely fine recordings of this work, my preferred one being Curzon with the Budapest Quartet (I was listening to the Naxos reissue from 2005, 8.110306, with Schumann), but none better than this. Partly this is a matter of idiom. All of these performers have been involved in performing the bulk of this chamber music project and it shows. They understand Brahms from the inside. Some of the recordings of this music that I admire most come from performers who have similarly got involved in the great variety of this music. I think of people like Emmanuel Ax or Yo Yo Ma or the Capuçons. Sometimes it is a matter of understanding how a part fits into the whole. At other moments, it is knowing how a melody unwinds because of an echo with another work or when a particular harmony needs picking out.

These are live recordings, though I assume patching was used, as I cannot believe that Le Sage, for one, got through such handfuls of notes without mistakes. There is a real frisson that only comes from live music making and I did wonder why so few chamber music recordings are made outside the studio. Where they excel is in the moment-to-moment responsiveness to each other that marks the best chamber music making. One of the things I have enjoyed most across all the volumes of this project I have heard is the joyous spirit that transcends individual points of interpretation.

The scherzo of the A major Piano Quartet is simply enormous and Le Sage’s merry band make no apologies for this. They refuse to rush or try to add extraneous drama but trust that Brahms knew what he was about. This is one of those movements like the equivalent movement of the Fourth symphony that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Show it and the finale patience and the listener will be repaid with some of Brahms’ most inspired pastoral writing. The latter is closer in mood to the Serenades or the first violin sonata and none the worse for that.

As I hope I have got across, I have been extremely taken with this project, and this first volume is an excellent introduction to its pleasures. There are other ways with this music but this album has given me immense enjoyment and demands consideration alongside those by more famous performers on bigger labels. Try the slow movement of the A major. I defy anyone to resist its charms!

David McDade

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