Brahms’ String Quintets on Naxos – graceful, beautifully-lit readings by the NZSQ with Maria Lambros

17 March 2019     /    REVIEW    /    Peter Mechen, Middle C    /    

New Zealand String Quartet, with Maria Lambros (viola), presents
BRAHMS – String Quintets – No.1 in F Major, Op.88 / No/2 in G Major, Op.111

Helene Pohl (leader) / Monique Lapins (violin) / Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (cello)
(with Maria Lambros – viola)

Naxos CD 8.573455

Playing and getting to know this disc recorded in Canada as long ago as 2016 has been, for me, a salutary experience on a couple of counts – firstly it’s been a recrimination of sorts, one that’s asked me in no uncertain tones of disapproval, why I hadn’t sought out and explored this venture by one of our most renowned and treasured musical ensembles before now! A different kind of reproof concerns the actual music, which I didn’t know nearly as well as I ought to have, other facets of the world being too much with me, to the detriment of my appreciation of the works on the present CD.

Continuing in this vein and juicily “flavouring” my present litany of self-deprecation with the admission that I’ve never really “got” Brahms’ chamber music that’s minus a piano would bring shock and horror into the argument as well as coals of condemnation down upon my head from dyed-in-the-wool Brahmsians, with whom I’ve skirmished before! So, it’s with surprise and delight that I’ve here started to listen to these works afresh, and seemingly begun to appreciate what their composer was doing, thanks to the luminously persuasive way of the players of the New Zealand String Quartet and their collaborator, Maria Lambros, with this music!

For whatever reason, the recording presents the Second (in G Major, Op.111) of the composer’s two String Quintets first up on the disc. Brahms originally thought this would be his last major chamber work, but then met clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld the following year (1891), and no less than four more chamber pieces came from his pen, inspired by the playing of a musician Brahms called “the nightingale of the orchestra”. Nevertheless, the Quintet displays a similar autumnal feeling in places to the clarinet works that followed, in between the invigorating bursts of energy – in fact the music’s vigorous opening immediately brought to my mind the Elgar of the Second Symphony, the trajectories having a similar “striding” aspect, and the exultations displaying more than a hint of the determined and ripely forthright about them, a “not to be thwarted” feel in the way the music unfolds. Somewhat Elgarian, too, is the way the music adroitly and seamlessly reveals its composer’s more lyrical inclinations as a kind of “inner core” – and the NZSQ players’ (including the second violist’s) beautifully-judged way with realising each of these contrasting moods and their symbiotic relationship is one of the things which gave me such pleasure throughout this opening movement’s journey.

With the following Adagio, we are enveloped in a gentle melancholy, whose potential for sorrow is softened by the music’s blood-pulsing flow and, in places, exquisite gentleness – there are outbursts of more heart-on-sleeve emotion in places, but always the music ultimately “takes care” of the listener’s concerns, the occasional shivers of loneliness placed in a wider context of stoic resignation, leaving us moved but not bereft. How gently and richly the playing takes us along this path, the viola leading the way, slightly “rushing” the slide upwards in the music’s second phrase (but giving it more “room” in its final appearance towards the movement’s end), and otherwise enabling us to fully enjoy the music’s songful outpourings. And the sequences when the night’s stars are gently revealed to us are exquisitely voiced by the ensemble, making the brief moments of agitation all the more telling.

The third movement’s Un poco Allegretto takes us closer to the world of the later Clarinet/ Viola Sonatas, an ardently proclaimed, though expansively phrased expression of controlled feeling, beautifully channelled along a ¾ rhythmic pathway, the textures voiced exquisitely in their ebb and flow of intensity, both in the minor-key opening and the contrasting major-key “trio” sequence, the lines in the latter having a Dvorakian “outdoor” quality in places. The finale depicts Brahms at his most engaging, with, again, the players’ penchant for keeping the lines airy and luminous giving the music so much variety and nuance, and to my ears entirely un-yoking the composer from any debilitating “keeper of the sacred flame” mantle wrought by his reactionary supporters – instead, this is playing which allows Brahms to be Brahms!

The ensemble also does well with the full-on opening of the earlier Quintet (F major, Op.88), keeping those lines sharply-focused and pliant (the influence of “period-practice” in the playing, perhaps?), the textures all the better-sounding for the players’ subtleties. Again, the music sounds freshly-minted, in places glowing with new-found delight (am I confusing my response with that of the players, here?), and skipping lightly over the bedrock of the pedal-points, both the solo viola and first violin giving the “Viennese Waltz” suggestion plenty of “juice” and relishing the ambivalence of the cross-rhythmed accompaniments. I liked the especially plaintive touch of the first violin’s high-flying phrase at the movement’s end, creating a brief “timeless” space before the throwaway ending.

Though this work has, on paper, only three movements, the complexities of the middle movement’s structure give a sense of a slow movement and a scherzo combined, the composer turning to a couple of baroque-like keyboard pieces from his earlier years, a sarabande, and a gavotte, as his source-material. Marked Grave ed appassionato at the outset, the music has a sighing aspect which the players here seem to “breathe” easily and naturally, allowing each change of texture, colour and dynamic to unfold and run together like a narrative. The charm of the contrasting Allegretto vivace is nicely caught, its almost insouciant character the perfect foil for the return of the movement’s opening, the “heartfelt” quality intensified – but the composer then, Beethoven-like, confounds our expectations with a presto variant of the Allegretto, followed by an even more richly-laden revisiting of the movement’s opening music. Once more, these players give the music the gravitas it needs with a beguiling lightness of touch and a rapt concentration over the last few bars which has one catching and holding one’s breath.

Two chords begin a finale of engaging fugal fun, the instruments playing games of chase, the rapid figurations momentarily exhausting themselves and alternating with chromatically-shifting triplets, everything freely modulating and exploratory. At a later point I thought I detected a brief moment of over-eagerness in one of the lines of the fugal figures’ incessant gyrations – but it somehow adds to the visceral excitement, culminating in the music suddenly shifting to a fleet-footed 9/8 rhythm, and converting the chase into a spirited dance. And I could also have imagined relishing a touch more rhetorical emphasis from the ensemble at the coda’s end, a stronger sense of homecoming – but in return for this I might have had to forego those treasurable moments during which this performance’s “incredible lightness of being” seemingly for the first time truly opened my ears to this glorious music.

The original review can be found here.

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