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Johannes BRAHMS (1833 -1897)
String Quartet No 1 in C minor, Op 51 No 1 [31:54]
String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op 51 No 2 [34:16]
String Quartet No 3 in B-flat major, Op 67 [35:25]
Intermezzo in A major, Op 118 No 2 (transcribed by Zakarias Grafilo) [6:19]
Alexander String Quartet
rec. June-July 2020, St Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, USA
reviewed as 24-bit download
FOGHORN CLASSICS FCL2022 [66:10 + 41:44]

The Alexander Quartet is among the most distinguished, enduring and prolific string quartets in the world and has a long-established reputation for music-making of the highest quality in performances and recordings both of works in the established classical canon and of new, modern commissions. They have indeed been admiringly reviewed and their recorded legacy enthusiastically endorsed by MusicWeb contributors over the last quarter century. This recording of Brahms’ string quartets, part of the quartet’s ongoing Brahms Project, launched their 40th season and supposedly marked the occasion of the final recording of the violist and quartet founder Paul Yarbrough, before passing the bow, as it were, to David Samuel, previously a frequent collaborator and thus entirely familiar with and to the group – but in fact, although he had officially departed, Yarbrough undertook to return to record the Mozart Viola Quintets.

The joy of this quartet’s playing is immediately apparent in the ferocious opening movement of the C minor quartet: they play with all the verve, drive and passion you could wish for but never at the expense of homogeneity or intonation – and the sustained warmth and depth of their string tone are a constant delight. They do not make a “lush” sound; vibrato is intermittent and when it is apparent it is usually tight or momentarily applied more strongly for emotional intensity at the end of phrases. Balances, too are always cunningly contrived – kudos to the sound engineers here – and rather than summoning the presence of Beethoven, ever looming over Brahms’ shoulder, there is something about the pathos of their playing which constantly recalls Schubert’s desperate striving for beauty in the face of heartbreak. The contrast between the tension of that feverish opening Allegro and the serenity of the Romanze is marked but there is never anything sentimentalised about their playing and there is always a certain shadow over Brahms’ lyricism. That is more apparent in the conflict of themes of the pulsing Allegretto third movement, where the prominence of the brooding viola is always threatening to undermine optimism – until the waltz four minutes into the movement lets in some light. The Alexander Quartet is alert to conveying all these moods faithfully. The Allegro finale reverts to the more agitated mood of the opening and is indeed thematically linked to it. The expected – hoped for? – optimistic resolution is not forthcoming, so the comparative insouciance of the ensuing A minor quartet brings relief.

Indeed, the long melodic lines of the first movement transport us into another dimension and the three upper strings sing defiantly over the cello’s intermittent pizzicato interjections and incessant rumbling, grumbling ground. The resonance of Sandy Wilson’s cello is especially noticeable in the Andante moderato; his voice is that of a sage commentator, continually reining in flightier spirits, and the central duet with the first violin is like a conversation between a grandfather and a headstrong child. The strangely halting “quasi-minuet” is faintly menacing until the swift change of mood in the central section with its running semiquavers, before the return to the prevailingly dark mood of the opening, but the finale takes us into the realm of Hungarian folk dance. The exuberance of the Alexander’s playing here is tempered by the steadiness of their rhythmic pulse, in accordance with the “non assai” direction right up until the scampering close demanded by the “piů vivace” marking in the last twenty seconds; the quartet is ever mindful of Brahms’ intentions.

The three quartets each themselves inhabit very different worlds and the Alexander Quartet evinces the chameleon properties required to embrace each discrete ambience effectively. This is mature, relaxed Brahms, secure in his métier as the successor to his musical antecedents, and exudes a kind of rustic playfulness which anticipates Mahler; the Alexander generate a droning sonority which is suggestive of bucolic contentment – and indeed, the third quartet was a summertime composition, as Brahms was on holiday in Ziegelhausen, near Heidelberg. How beautifully they launch into the Andante second movement, again imparting a dark, buzzing amplitude to their tone. This is quartet playing of the highest order; just listen to the way the concluding F major chord glows. The finale is based upon six variations, not a form which always prompts excited anticipation in my breast, but Brahms’ wit and invention carry the day. The conclusion is a little anticlimactic for my taste but indicative of how completely Brahms felt at ease in the idiom.

Eric Bromberger’s notes are informative and interesting, providing context, anecdote and musical guidance – a model of their kind.

The catalogue is of course replete with recordings of these works; for example, I have for years contented myself with those by the Tokyo String Quartet, but they omit the exposition repeats, which I want. This newer recording will be welcomed by the legion devotees of the Alexander String Quartet as testimony to their supremacy as dedicated musicians and consummate communicators.

Ralph Moore

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