If there’s such a thing as a “mighty” string quartet, the best candidates would probably come from Brahms’s output, so full of conflict and struggle, rather than Beethoven’s. Brahms was a master of much-in-little, cramming his chamber music with second helpings of harmony, development, and aspiration, precisely because he felt Beethoven’s shadow at his back. He had to sneak up on difficult genres like the symphony and the stringRead more quartet with practice runs—there were two serenades and a piano concerto before achieving his First Symphony, and two string sextets before finishing his first “valid” quartet. That’s to distinguish the op. 51 quartets from the 20, by his count, that Brahms had previously discarded. Even so, the birth of the two op. 51 quartets took him 13 years, starting with sketches in 1860.
Both works ache with high aspirations. The first theme of op. 51/1 towers and rumbles like a thunderhead, and by the time the two opening themes have been completely stated, we’re in dense harmonic territory, with portents of the development section already packed in before the actual development arrives. But that’s Brahms’s method. If you love these ambitious, intense, passionate pieces, they are quintessential; if you look on them as densely over-determined, they can be exhausting. (It might be best to start with the second work, in A Minor, which is somewhat more easygoing and even serenade-like from the outset.)
I find that the great Alban Berg Quartet can come on too strong in these works, attempting as they do to keep the Romantic outcry at fever pitch. The Rodin Quartet, formed in Munich in 1993, strikes a mellower balance. They confront the “mighty” aspects of the outer movements without being relentless, while the calmer inner movements flow naturally, giving the listener a respite before the stormy intensity returns in the finale (not for Brahms was a finale the time for a jaunty rondo).
Despite their extensive output of CDs, I’d never encountered the Rodins before; they are traditionalists in the best sense of the term, expressing the Brahmsian idiom with warmth and seriousness, its two most essential qualities. Unlike the Artemis Quartet, which I’ve taken to be the leading German group along with the Hagens, this ensemble doesn’t strive to adopt the new, more efficient style introduced by the Emersons. They don’t have to. With a recording as impressive as this one, in excellent sound, and with their mellifluous blend and strong musicality, the Rodin Quartet provides a very satisfying listening experience. If your touchstone in the op. 51 quartets has been the time-honored Amadeus Quartet accounts from the 1960s (DG), here’s the chance for an update in much fuller sound and with better technique.
Lucious BrahmsSeptember 9, 2014By Joseph Lieber, MD (Great Neck, NY)See All My Reviews"Perhaps Brahms excelled more in his quintets and trios, but his op 51 string quartets are still exciting works. The Rodin Quartet plays them beautifully in lucious sound. They seem to be a bit tamer than other interpertations. Yes, the drive is still there but the tension is less. These are well worth hearing for the playing and sound. Tamer, perhaps more "civilized"!"Report Abuse
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