Notes and Editorial Reviews
This Hyperion set is my pick among the bunch.
Not to denigrate his songs or orchestral works, but Brahms’ chamber music is, with a few exceptions, his most pleasing and most admired output. I’d never pick a fight with anyone questioning whether the string quartets or op.120 sonatas really belong in the Parthenon of chamber music. But the String Sextets, the Quintets (Clarinet, Piano, String), the Piano Quartets, the Trios (Clarinet, Piano, Horn), and the Cello and Violin Sonatas are many musicians’ most appreciated daily bread and easily accessible to casual listeners alike. You’d have to be a pretty hardened Brahms-hater to feel, much less think otherwise.
And because it’s all so terrific, it only makes
sense to offer it all in one convenient box. Deutsche Grammophon has done so, as part of their complete Brahms Edition. A year later, or so, Philips followed suit with a box of Brahms’ complete chamber music of their own. Both were setting very high standards, both are – inexplicably – out of print right now. In 2003 Brilliant assembled a collection of their own, which is now also available as part of their 60 CD complete Brahms set.
Now Hyperion has entered the fray, and it is most welcome, indeed. On twelve well filled discs, Hyperion gives us a survey of Brahms’ chamber music of consistent high quality – possibly unmatched by any of the competition. Many included performances are not just good, but favorites and among the finest available. There are no particular weak spots and the sound quality of these modern recordings - the oldest is from 1983 - is as high as we have come to expect from the label.
The Raphael Ensemble’s String Sextets (including Roger Tapping) and Quintets would do any company’s catalogue proud. There’s nothing that might be construed as ‘stereotypically British’ here. And although all but two members have changed from the 1988 recording of the Sextets to the 1995 recording of the Quintets (both engineered by Tony Faulkner), the playing is of a seamlessly high quality: glorious, with precision, and most importantly: with lots of heart. Other recordings (Sextets: ASMF Chamber Ensemble [on Chandos] and Leipzig String Quartet++ [MDG], Quintets: Hagen Quartet with Gérard Caussé [DG] and Leipzig String Quartet+ [MDG]) might match, but none surpass the Raphael’s versions.
When it comes to Brahms’ String Quartets, I don’t generally enthuse - “undisputed master of composing without ideas” (H.Wolf) and such… - and I don’t here, either. But having heard it so often lately – live and on CD – I’m more and more getting used to them. The New Budapest Quartet, which Hyperion chose to include in their entirety - instead of patching with their brand new Takács Quartet recording - aren’t bad at all.
I know precious little about András Kiss, Ferenc Balogh, László Barsony, and Károly Botvay, except some of their recordings on Hyperion and Marco Polo (e.g. Bartók, Borodin, Beethoven and lots of Spohr – most of them re-issued on the mid-price Dyad and Helios sub-labels). In these Brahms works, they go well beyond the ‘capable’ and make engaging, very Central European music out of it, downplaying the seriousness and without belaboring any phrase or musical point too long. This isn’t replacing my first choice Alban Berg Quartet (EMI) recording for all three quartets, or the Mandelring Quartet in op. 51, but it pleases plenty. Were I to listen through this whole box again, as I have a few times already, I’d never think of bothering to skip these renditions in favor of others. For one, I’d not want to miss their Piano Quintet, which they play with Piers Lane.
Nostalgia has me consider stormy Leon Fleisher and the Juilliard Quartet (Sony via Arkiv) for the Quintet; I shall always cherish the smooth, sometimes detailed, sometimes bashful Quartetto Italiano with Maurizio Pollini (DG Originals), nor let the exacting, superbly sonorous, occasionally strident Hagen Quartett with Paul Gulda gather dust (DG via Arkiv). Splashier recent releases like said Takács with Stephen Hough (too nervous) or Emerson with Fleisher (too ungainly the execution of the piano part) can’t touch Lane and Budapest.
Among the Piano Quartets, the first – op.25 in g-minor – is by far the most popular. A popularity exemplified (and maybe, partly caused) by Arnold Schoenberg’s oft recorded orchestration of this substantial, 40 minute long work; coincidentally, cpo has just issued a new recording thereof – coupled with Luciano Berio’s orchestra arrangement of the clarinet sonata op.120/1. A couple of years ago an all-star cast of Martha Argerich, Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet, and Mischa Maisky was assembled to record op.25 for DG. Fortunately the four full-blooded musicians celebrated Brahms, not their egos. The result is a brilliant and fiery reading that might never be surpassed in that regard.
While theirs and the Amadeus Quartet’s recording with Emil Gilels - another gem in the DG catalog - sound a little like the Little Symphony That Couldn’t (many of Brahms’ chamber works started out intended to be orchestral works), there are more chamber-music like approaches, too. For example the Trio Wanderer with violist Christophe Gaugué (HMU), or the Beaux Arts Trio who are at their best here with violist Walter Trampler (Philips or Pentatone). The players around Isabelle Faust and Derek Han (for Brilliant Classics) show all their promise in a fleet reading not just of the first but of all three Quartets. That’s stiff competition for the players on the Hyperion set, the Leopold String Quartet (Marianne Thorsen, Lawrence Power, and Kate Gould) who perform with that most nimble-fingered of all pianists, Marc-André Hamelin. And for a recording of all three Quartets, their strongest competition might not be the Beaux Arts or Wanderer Trio, but the Piano Quartet “Domus” on a budget Virgin re-issue.
Although I’ve cherished the Domus recording for many years now, I’ve never bothered to look up (or remember) its members. What a surprise then – or rather: how perfectly logical – to find that Domus is essentially the expanded Florestan Trio with Susan Tomes (piano) and Richard Lester (cello), violist Timothy Boulton and, instead of Anthony Marwood, the genial duo partner of Tomes’, Krysia Osostowicz, on violin. Before disbanding, Domus had also been taken onto Hyperion’s artists roster.
Hamelin’s slightly drier and more enunciated playing and the closer recording make the Leopold String Trio’s performances more straight-faced and less reverberant than the modestly indulgent Domus. The chugging cello line of the op.25 second movement sounds so refined with the Leopold’s Ms. Gould, she could pass as playing the viola. And while the Leopold/Hamelin combination sounds incredibly and impressively fast in the concluding Rondo alla Zingarese, there’s not the sense of a turbulent, hair-down execution as with Domus - much less Argerich and co. For those in favor of leaner, longer lines in Brahms, the immaculate and civilized Leopold/Hamelin combination - exploring technical extremes without ever sounding challenged - might be the preferred version. Whatever the case, few would likely complain if these were their only versions of the Quartets.
There is little in the repertoire where the Florestan Trio would not be my first choice – and that goes for the Brahms Piano Trios as well. Without giving in to the temptation of romantic indulgence, this is superbly played, detailed, and compelling chamber music-making. It ranks right up there with the Beaux Arts Trio who can be a bit more generous and warmer - more ‘continental European’, if you wish - but don’t play quite as impeccably.
Their Horn Trio with Stephen Sterling has all the same qualities, and especially the precision of the musicians. The exceptional Hyperion recording pays dividends here. Susan Tomes’ pianism is just the right mix between assertive and delicate – giving it, apart from the much superior sound, an edge over the 1957 Dennis Brain/Max Salpeter/Cyril Preedy collaboration (BBC Legends). The horn never dominates Anthony Marwood’s violin (as it does with Tuckwell/Perlman/Ashkenazy – Decca, 1968). Of the versions I know, only MDG’s 1995 recording is as well engineered. An interesting comparison would have been the new Harmonia Mundi release with Theunis Van der Zwart playing the work on the Waldhorn (as intended by Brahms) together with his colleagues Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov; alas it just came out this October and I haven’t gotten my ears on it, yet.
There are many favorites in the Clarinet Trio. I’ve not yet heard the most recent recording with the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and Ricardo Morales (whose Brahms Clarinet Quintet much impressed me at the National Academy of Sciences in DC, over four years ago) on Koch which came out last month. But the 2005 BIS release of Martin Fröst (with Roland Pöntinen and Torleif Thedéen) was predictably excellent. It’s not unlike Richard Hosford’s with the Florestan Trio on these Hyperion discs: flawlessly played with extraordinary command over the instruments and superbly balanced by the engineers. The BIS sound is caught even more closely and naturally (warts – if that’s what you want to call key-clicking and breathing noises – and all), and Fröst manages more hushed pianissimo phrases. Neither, however, have the beautiful long, unhurried lines that Karl Leister manages – either in his 1968 recording on DG (with Christoph Eschenbach and Georg Donderer) or on Nimbus (just re-issued on Brilliant Classics) with Berlin Philharmonic colleagues Ferenc Bognár and Wolfgang Boettcher. Hyperion would have had another option for this set, too: Thea King with Clifford Benson and Karine Georgian (Hyperion CDA66107) – who deliver a performance rivaled in warmth only by Stoltzman/Ax/Ma on the classic Sony recording. But even amid an embarrassment of choices, Hosford/Florestan stand their ground proudly and give little reason why their version shouldn’t be anyone’s first choice.
For those who cherish Dame Thea King, good news comes with the Clarinet Quintet and the Clarinet Sonatas. The Gabrieli String Quartet and Mme. King deliver a splendid, unified performance. Instead of string quartet and a dominating quartet, they are five equal players where King’s warm clarinet is just one of five voices. Especially in the first movement it’s surprisingly humble, bordering self-effacing – fans of extroverted playing will have to look elsewhere. The competition is similar to the above: Stoltzman with the Tokyo Quartet (RCA), (better than the Tokyo Quartet with Joan Enric Lluna on Harmonia Mundi), one of the many Leister recordings (on DG with the Amadeus Quartet, on Brilliant with the Brandis, or – perhaps most compelling – with the Vermeer Quartet on Orfeo). Add to that Sabine Meyer with the ABQ (EMI), Herbert Stähr and the Berlin Philharmonic Octet members (Philips) and you have half a dozen alternatives that (nearly) reach the heights of King & Co who compare well even against my current favorite – Paul Meyer and the Capuçon brothers on Virgin (where it is the filler to a mildly disappointing Brahms double concerto). King is every bit as good in the Sonatas (still available on a low-mid priced Helios CD), and the competition largely the same: Stoltzman/Goode (RCA), Fröst/Pontinen (BIS), Leister/Oppitz (Orfeo) and especially a newcomer from Harmonia Mundi USA with Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu. King’s tone is beautiful, accurate – like Manasse’s – but more clear, more assertive than the latter’s. Turn it around and you have Manasse with a soft (yet haze-free), round tone the like of which I have rarely heard. Together with the similarly inclined Jon Nakamatsu, he emphasizes a bit more than King: Slow and moderate movements are a bit slower, fast, lively movements a bit faster. Both recordings are excellently recorded and well balanced – Thea King’s clarinet slightly ‘behind’ the piano, Manasse’s right on top of it.
Arriving at the Cello Sonatas I am inclined to say: “finally” a recording where direct comparison leaves room for critical remarks. Steven Isserlis’s first recording for Hyperion – with Peter Evans – is included here, and while they are relatively vigorous performances - often Isserlis is too bland, too careful for me - in the usual splendid sound, I miss the assertive glory of Rostropovich/Serkin (DG), or the warm musicality and glow of Starker/Seb?k (my favorite recording – Mercury), or the virtuosity put to such good use in the first Ma/Ax recording (1984 RCA, not 1991 Sony). Steven Isserlis didn’t have the Feuermann Stradivarius cello in his hands when he made this recording in 1984 (it belonged to Aldo Pariso until 1996), which is probably why he remade them with Steven Hough some twenty years later. Longer cello lines, a more subdued - not to say monotonous - air, better, more individual, independent pianism, and a still richer sound mark the latter recording - an improvement only in some ways.
The matter is different with the three Violin Sonatas: Krysia Osostowicz and Susan Tomes may offer the least name recognition among the artists on this box-set, but their Violin Sonatas (1990) have been my beloved favorite ever since I bought them on Hyperion’s Helios sub-label. I simply love their touching and melodious way with the music. No pair of musicians that I’ve heard plays these works so naturally, with such musical unobtrusiveness, as they do – which is why I favor them over all the competition that aims more for virtuosity and pronounced dynamics. Listening to it is like witnessing chamber music in the moment of being created, rather than ‘interpreted’. Absolute control over their instruments is a given, anyway, with these artists. The F-A-E Scherzo in c-minor has been tacked on for the sake of completism – Mme. Osostowicz recorded it with Simon Crawford-Phillips just this May 2008. Other favorites of mine, like Suk/Katchen (Decca), Dumay/Pires (DG), and Capuçon/Angelich (Virgin), bring me great joy, too. But if I had to keep one, it’d be Osostowicz/Tomes.
I approached the final disc – the viola transcriptions of the op.120 sonatas and the clarinet trio – with some trepidation. Not my favorite works to begin with, and less so with the viola. But at least the viola-bias is an attitude attained from relatively limited, not always pleasurable, exposure. At the ARD competition Sergey Malov played op.120/1 very well, indeed – hearing Lawrence Dutton (of Emerson Quartet fame) in both works was less enjoyable a few years back. Fortunately Lawrence Power - violist of the Nash Ensemble and the Leopold Trio - is more than up to the challenge and manages dark, unfussy readings that I found not just bearable but even enjoyable. My memories of Zukerman/Barenboim on DG are vague, but negative; of Shlomo Mintz/Itamar Golan (Avie) vaguely neutral, of Kim Kashkashian with Robert Levin a rare case of delight (ECM). Maxim Rysanov (with Katya Apekisheva) on Onyx isn’t coming out in the US until November 2008, but that disc will include the viola transcriptions of the Horn Trio and the first Violin Sonata, and might be interesting for anyone looking specifically for those works. While it would not be my first choice bought individually, Power with Simon Crawford Phillips and cellist Timothy Hugh leave no complaints, ending this twelve-disc set on a high point (this disc was individually reviewed on MusicWeb by Michael Cookson).
Looked at - and listened to - as a set, the merits are much higher, still, than “leaves no complaints”. Even if the DG and Philips sets were still available - which they currently are not - they wouldn’t be a threat to Hyperion’s – merely competition. DG has some spectacular highlights with the Rostropovich/Serkin Cello Suites and the Italiano/Abbado Piano Quintet. But even DG has stronger performances of some of the other works in their own catalog that are not included on the compilation: The Hagen Quartett with Gérard Caussé in the String Quintets and Emil Gilels with the Amadeus Quartet (or Argerich ‘with friends’) in the First Piano Quartet, for example. Philips has the Beaux Arts Trio, who were caught at the height of their powers and are particularly effective in the Piano Quartets with violist Walter Trampler. The Cello Sonatas with Sebok and Starker are my – emotional - favorite, anyway, and Seb?k/Grumiaux are fine in the Violin Sonatas. But the clarinet works and the String Quartets - the Quartetto Italiano on auto-pilot - are not top drawer.
The Hyperion box’s less than brilliant spot - weakness would be too strong a word - is probably the disc with the Cello Sonatas. Perhaps a missed opportunity in not having been generous and thrown in Isserlis’ new recording with Stephen Hough … though, in all honesty, even then I would still recommend supplementing your collection with either “Slava” or Starker. Brilliant Classics has a box out (see review), and it’s as complete as Hyperion’s. It happens to be one of the strong points of their complete Brahms box (which runs about the price of the Hyperion Chamber Works) and should not be dismissed. But Hyperion’s excellent interpretations are added by extraordinary production value – not the least the exceptionally well engineered recordings that offer a continuity of great sound that Brilliant’s pick-and-patch collection can’t match. Differences individual tastes will inform the choice between the sets – but with at least a dozen performances that are my favorites even on individual discs, the Hyperion set is my pick among the bunch.
-- Jens F. Laurson, MusicWeb Interntaional
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