Notes and Editorial Reviews
If you’re interested in a truly international Brahms project, look no further: pianist Wang is from China, and the members of the Amity Players (in score order) are Hungarian violinist Béla Horvath, Israeli violist Tom Palny, and French cellist Raphaël Dubé. All studied in New York City (where they presumably met), Dubé at the Mannes College of Music, the others at the Manhattan School of Music; and, they record for a Canadian company. Moreover, this is a very young group: the two members whose birth dates are given in the booklet are in their mid-twenties, and Wang looks to be perhaps thirtyish at most. They take on a program that far more experienced groups have found daunting, and are at
least halfway successful in pulling it off.
The dynamic Quartet No. 1 in G Minor comes off here with just the right combination of exuberance and fullness of sound; tempos are well judged throughout, the somewhat expansive first movement (at 13: 43) in particular allowed to unfold without the frantic feeling one sometimes gets with faster performances. Brahms’s performance directions are by and large scrupulously followed: the hairpin swells just before the Trio of the Intermezzo are just one example that caught my attention. The mood of the third-movement Andante con moto, marked
at its opening, is captured perfectly: the tone quality is that of
playing, but the actual dynamic level is a notch lower. The concluding Rondo alla zingarese is a true
, but not so fast that any details become blurred. There are a few quibbles, the most significant of which is that the overall balance unduly favors the strings; it’s impossible for me to say whether this is a problem with the performance or the recording, but one wishes for more from Wang, particularly at the climax of the “march” section of the third movement. One or two transitions are a little awkward (the
to the D-Major second theme of the first movement is a case in point), but overall this is a performance that does its young players proud.
The C-Minor Quartet No. 3, a much later work, makes for a problematic discmate under any circumstances. The G-Minor was completed around 1859; the C-Minor, whose compositional history is particularly complex even for Brahms, and which carries clearer programmatic implications (to wit, the composer’s lifelong, hopeless love for Clara Schumann) than most of his instrumental works, was begun in the mid 1850s, but set aside, extensively revised, and not completed until 1875, around the same time as the Symphony No. 1 in the same key. It is the least-frequently performed of the three piano quartets, representing Brahms at his most severe, at least in much of its first two movements. (The great length of the Second Quartet in A, however, makes the present coupling the only possible single-disc pairing among the three.) While I generally have some discomfort with these sorts of observations, one is tempted here to suggest that the youthful ensemble has not lived nor suffered long enough to mine the deep veins of vehemence and sorrow, in turn, that Brahms wrote into this work. In any event, the performance simply needs more blood and guts. The opening of the first movement, while taken here at a markedly slower tempo than the body of the movement, is not a true introduction (there is no change of tempo indicated), but rather an
presentation of the main musical materials of the movement. (Compare the recapitulation, which repeats this opening music in a transformed fashion, as well as the coda.) The second-movement Scherzo likewise is insufficiently weighty, timing in at 4:13, or a minute shorter than Domus on Virgin and 1:20 shorter than my favorite version, that recorded by Tamás Vásáry and a group of principal Berlin Philharmonic string-players in 1982 for DG’s complete Brahms Edition and now, shamefully, available only in Japan (from www.hmv.co.jp). There are, to be sure, some magical moments here: the unique variation-form second theme of the opening movement, for example, and in particular its ethereal first variation in the recapitulation; and, the exposition repeat in the finale is appropriately observed (as it is by Vásáry and his colleagues but not by Domus). If these talented young musicians also record the A-Major Quartet, I suspect they will find it much closer to their collective comfort zone.
A footnote: a few months after these recordings were made, DG recorded the Fauré Quartet in the identical program; the CD was issued late in 2007 but never distributed in the U.S., and as of July 2008 it seems to be out of print worldwide. This not only represents a preposterous way of running a recording company, but also deprives us of superior, better-balanced, and in the C-Minor, better-paced and weighted performances. We can only hope that DG records the Fauré in the A-Major and reissues all three in a two-disc set. Meanwhile, die-hard Brahmsians may be able to find a copy on amazon.com, and the Domus and Vásáry versions are first-class, and include all three quartets. The present disc, then, is recommended, albeit with reservations, and with the suggestion that you keep an eye on these promising talents.
-- Richard A. Kaplan, Fanfare
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Piano and Strings no 1 in G minor, Op. 25 by Johannes Brahms
Tom Palny (Viola),
Raphael Dube (Cello),
Béla Horváth (Violin),
Xiayin Wang (Piano)
Written: 1855-1861; Germany
Length: 39 Minutes 24 Secs.
Quartet for Piano and Strings no 3 in C minor, Op. 60 by Johannes Brahms
Tom Palny (Viola),
Xiayin Wang (Piano),
Raphael Dube (Cello),
Béla Horváth (Violin)
Written: 1855-1875; Austria
Length: 33 Minutes 28 Secs.
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