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Brahms: Chamber Works / Nash Ensemble (4 CDs)

Brahms / Nash Ensemble
Release Date: 12/11/2012 
Label:  Onyx   Catalog #: 4093   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Iona BrownRichard Hosford
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nash Ensemble
Number of Discs: 4 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Reviews of the original recordings that make up this set:

Piano Quartet No 2, Clarinet Trio
This is an impressive addition to the Nash Ensemble’s growing catalogue of Brahms recordings. And as with their recording of the String Sextets, and of the First and Third Piano Quartets, a real sense of collective endeavour permeates these performances. You really get the impression that the works are being played as chamber music: passionate without being histrionic, precisely coordinated but with freely expressive solo lines, and balanced to give each player equal prominence.

The scoring of the Clarinet Trio – clarinet, cello, piano – helps to delineate each of the voices, and in this work it
Read more is to the credit of the players and the sound engineers alike that so much coherency is achieved in the ensemble. All three players come across with a warm yet focused tone. The democracy of the Nash Ensemble’s approach is demonstrated by the fact that the clarinet never seems to dominate as a solo instrument. Again, this may in part be due to the sound engineering and the way that the upper register of the piano has a roundness of tone that perfectly complements the clarinet’s sound. Dynamic and tempo markings are observed but never exaggerated, the poco F at the opening for example, is interpreted as an indication of clarity of tone and phrasing rather than an actual loud dynamic, thereby retaining a sense of mystery for this slow introduction.

The louder passages in the opening movements of both works demonstrate the extraordinary facility the Nash Ensemble has for presenting chamber music as chamber music. Brahms cranks up the tension, and the volume, but the players never let the music’s intimacy suffer. All the passion is there, but there is never any danger excess. Surprise dynamic jumps in the finale of the Clarinet Trio are another case in point; each sF jumps out of the texture, but never to the extent of disrupting the music’s lyrical continuity.

Fine balance and close communication between the players also characterise the Nash Ensemble’s reading of the Second Piano Quartet. So there is never any danger of the piano competing with the strings. As in the Clarinet Trio, the roundness of the piano tone really helps it to integrate into the texture of the other instruments. And yet despite that integration, the sound of each of the instruments is always clearly audible. I’m particularly impressed by the sound of the cello in the mix. It’s not a particularly bottom-heavy balance, but the cello really sings.

Perhaps these performances are a little too sophisticated? Is there enough rustic charm in the scherzos? Enough drama to engage in the Allegros? Well, from where I’m sitting they gauge it just right. True enough, I would probably be just as content with a reading that was a little more boisterous, provided it retained the same balance and ensemble. But, as I say, this is chamber music played as chamber music. Intimacy and immediacy are the guiding principles here, from the communication between the players to the clarity and warmth of the sound engineering.

-- Gavin Dixon, MusicWeb International

String Quintets
This is the third release in the Nash Ensemble’s series of Brahms chamber music recordings for Onyx; already issued are the sextets (reviewed by Jerry Dubins in Fanfare 31:4) and the First and Third Piano Quartets (reviewed by the undersigned in 32:6). At least two other groups have recently recorded Brahms’s complete string chamber music: the Verdi Quartet on Hänssler, and the Leipzig Quartet on MDG; while we will have to see whether the Nash survey will be as comprehensive, it is already more broad, including two works with piano that neither of the two standing string quartets has recorded. The Leipzig series does include the Piano Quintet, with pianist Andreas Staier; I have not yet heard that recording.

As with the Nash’s two earlier Brahms discs, the playing here is polished, intelligent, and expressive. One of the most difficult problems of the F-Major Quintet is the tempo relationship between the first movement’s two themes; many groups, most jarringly the Amadeus Quartet in its 1960s version, speed up abruptly at the second theme, as the overall rhythmic activity changes from eighth notes to quarter-note triplets. In this recording the tempo is a bit faster, but not so much as to disrupt the musical flow. There are many felicitous touches as well, for example, the senza vibrato playing that underscores the echo effect at m. 84 of the second movement. The fugal finale is taken at a rapid clip, but the Nash’s musicians—violinists Marianne Thorsen and Malin Broman, violists Lawrence Power and Philip Dukes, and cellist Paul Watkins—maintain complete rhythmic and technical control.

The first movement of the great G-Major Quintet ( Allegro non troppo, ma con brio ) is taken at a near-ideal tempo, fast enough to be exciting but not so fast as to blur the music’s magnificently complex polyphony. Again, as in the F-Major, small details are telling: for once the viola “cadenza” at m. 66 of the second movement is perfectly in tune! And, again, the Animato coda of the finale is played both fearlessly and brilliantly.

As has become customary, all repeats are taken. The recording is warm and natural, if perhaps a bit bright; the crucial cello part is adequately audible in the dense texture of the G-Major, but the overall blend is still a bit bass-shy. Of competing versions, that of the Verdi Quartet with violist Hermann Voss has a fuller low end, but suffers from a weak-sounding first violin; in addition, each of the quintets is coupled with one of the sextets, which some collectors may find inconvenient. The Leipzig Quartet with Hartmut Rohde plays the first movement of the G-Major with somewhat less abandon, but benefits from warmer sonics, making its version marginally preferable. Of stand-alone versions of the quintets, my gold standard remains the 1982 Nonesuch recording by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, led by the superb Joseph Silverstein and anchored by cellist Jules Eskin. The music-making is exemplary, and the early digital sound is simultaneously more transparent than that of this new version and richer as well; for once, perhaps aided by the engineers, the cello has sufficient weight, and there is none of the “digital glare” for which recordings of the period are often criticized. Still, it would be hard to go wrong with this new CD, particularly for collectors who have enjoyed the Nash Ensemble’s previous two Brahms discs for Onyx. This recording ranks near the top of a very high-class field.

FANFARE: Richard A. Kaplan

Piano Quartets No 1 & 3
This is the second release in what reportedly will be an “ongoing series” of Brahms chamber-music recordings by the Nash Ensemble; their recent recording of the two string sextets received high praise from Jerry Dubins in Fanfare 31:4. The pairing of the first and last of Brahms’s piano quartets—the C-Minor receives relatively few stand-alone recordings—is usually a sign that a complete set is in the works; the length of the A-Major Quartet makes the present CD coupling the only practical one.

There is much to like in the present two performances; I would be inclined to echo Dubins’s rave were it not for two things. First, I listened to this disc the day after auditioning a truly extraordinary recording of two other Brahms works by the Arcanto Quartet (reviewed elsewhere). Where the Arcanto musicians find new insights everywhere in the C-Minor String Quartet, here the Nash players (Ian Brown, piano; Marianne Thorsen, violin; Lawrence Power, viola; and Paul Watkins, cello) are content to let Brahms’s music speak for itself. This works fine in the flamboyant G-Minor Quartet; the playing is first-rate top-to-bottom, and the recording is very natural sounding, so that ensemble is emphasized over individual lines. This is a polished, no-gimmicks performance that one can live with.

Second, though, the C-Minor Quartet, op. 60, while not as difficult technically, presents much greater musical challenges. I have discussed this at some length already in these pages, e.g., in my review in the May/June 2009 issue of the recording by Nicholas Angelich and colleagues, and in 32:2 (November/December 2008) by Xiayin Wang and the Amity Players in the identical program. Again I find the Nash Ensemble version well played and mostly effective, but it falls just short of conveying fully the powerful contrasts inherent in the score. More than once, Brahms alluded to Goethe’s Werther in writing about this work; given that its complex compositional history intertwines considerably with Brahms’s equally complex relationship with Clara Schumann—the piece had its genesis at the time of Robert Schumann’s final illness and death—one can understand the sort of emotional extremes the music suggests. Joanna Wyld’s fine program notes document this “programmatic” element in detail.

The performance has its strong points; the first movement is particularly effective, with the exception of an uncalled-for più mosso at the big B-Major arrival in the development. But the Scherzo, placed second, lacks vehemence—if a “scherzo” is a joke, then this is a very nasty joke indeed—and the beautiful E-Major Andante, according to some a portrait of Clara herself, is attractive, but too fast to be truly exquisite. The Finale, with exposition repeat taken, is likewise well played, but simply too comfortable; given the implicit program, the C-Major ending may be one of the darkest passages ever written in that key; one further misses the hold-your-breath tension that the chromatic scales leading to that ending can embody. I have long been recommending the recording—shamefully out of print—by Tamás Vásáry and a crack team of Berlin Philharmonic string soloists for DG; after hearing the Nash performance, I listened again to that older recording for the first time in quite a while, and yes, the vehement music is more intense, the beautiful more moving.

The bottom line, therefore, is that this G-Minor Quartet ranks with the best, and that only the fact that others have probed the contrasting moods of the C-Minor more fully prevents it from receiving a top ranking as well. Recommended for all but the most demanding collector.

FANFARE: Richard A. Kaplan

String Sextets
The subtlety, the sheer dexterity of the interplay between the members of the Nash Ensemble in this wonderful disc can be dizzying to hear. It’s not simply a question of how fast they can play the notes; it has more to do with the speed, nimbleness and yet profundity with which they can switch emotions, dipping in and out of moods seemingly at will. This is very classy playing indeed.

-- Gramophone [9/2007]

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Works on This Recording

Sextet for Strings no 2 in G major, Op. 36 by Johannes Brahms
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nash Ensemble
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1864-1865; Austria 
Sextet for Strings no 1 in B flat major, Op. 18 by Johannes Brahms
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nash Ensemble
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1859-1860; Germany 
Quintet for Strings no 2 in G major, Op. 111 by Johannes Brahms
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nash Ensemble
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1890; Austria 
Quintet for Strings no 1 in F major, Op. 88 by Johannes Brahms
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nash Ensemble
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1882; Austria 
Quartet for Piano and Strings no 3 in C minor, Op. 60 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Iona Brown (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nash Ensemble
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855-1875; Austria 
Quartet for Piano and Strings no 2 in A major, Op. 26 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Iona Brown (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nash Ensemble
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855-1861; Germany 
Quartet for Piano and Strings no 1 in G minor, Op. 25 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Iona Brown (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nash Ensemble
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855-1861; Germany 
Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in A minor, Op. 114 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Richard Hosford (Clarinet)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nash Ensemble
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1891; Austria 

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