BRAHMS: String Quartets (complete); Piano Quartet No. 1 in g, op. 25.
Busch Quartet, Rudolf Serkin (piano).
PRISTINE AUDIO PACM 091 TT: 133:36.
NOW FROM PRISTINE CLASSICAL
I came to appreciate Brahms's music, outside of individual works, very
late. He bored me so much that when I heard his symphonies in concert,
I would fall asleep. I agreed thoroughly with George Bernard Shaw's assessment.
Yet I could hardly avoid Brahms's work in the concert and the recital
hall. It took a very minor work of Brahms to turn me around and to open
huge catalogue of listening. For me, not to sleight the orchestral scores,
Brahms at his best lies in his chamber music. Still, after all these
years, the string quartets I find hard to love. I'm not alone. Compared
quartets of Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn, and Bartók, ensembles rarely
program or record them. Furthermore, they've always had trouble (considered "difficult" to
listen to) although they've also had significant admirers. Schoenberg singled
out the first two for commendation in his essay "Brahms the Progressive" from
Style and Idea and pointed out the boldness of their harmonies and the
subtleties of their motific construction. On the other hand, he remarked
to Oscar Levant that Brahms's string quartets lay "suspiciously well" for
a pianist's hands, an implied criticism that Brahms had not conceived
the works for the instruments.
Thoroughly intimidated by Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms waited a long time
to come to the string quartet medium. He may have destroyed up to forty
previous attempts. Then he composed the first two in a rush (for him),
although he delayed publication while he polished them. The String Quartet
No. 1, full of Sturm und Drang almost to the point of turgidity, seems
orchestrally conceived, the ideas too big for a mere four instruments,
especially in the outer movements. Brahms tends to cram in as much counterpoint
as he can, to show his serious bona fides. Where Mozart and Beethoven,
in their textures if not in their psychology, are clear and direct, Brahms
seems to over-qualify his ideas. On the other hand, this is one of the
things that Schoenberg (not free of this himself) admired.
In the second quartet, however, the music fits the medium -- true chamber
music rather than orchestral music stuffed into a suit too small. It's
my favorite of the three and in many ways the one that interests me the
most. For one thing, all the movements are in A tonality, either minor
or major -- a homotonal work, perhaps a tip of the hat to the Baroque suite
-- and the harmonies rove more adventurously. The main theme of the first
movement foreshadows the opening of the Symphony No. 4.
Unfortunately, my review copy came with a duplicate of the first disc,
so I have no idea about the String Quartet No. 3 or the Piano Quartet
in g. Nevertheless, on the strength of the one CD, I can recommend the
with a certain degree of confidence. Again, not all that many viable
recordings exist out there. The quartets seem to pose a great deal of
difficulty. You will find many modern recordings out there that get the
notes, but not the music. For me, the Takács Quartet performances
lead the modern ensembles, and curiously they tend to resemble the Busch's.
Both have a deep grasp of the Brahms idiom. The Takács have the
advantage of better sound, stereo, and cleaner playing, but their interpretation
seems studied. The Busch play these works as if exploring unknown territory,
as to some extent the Brahms quartets were. They bring a sense of discovery
and adventure to the table. Furthermore, Pristine Audio, at the top of
audio restoration, greatly eliminates the schmutz from the original recordings
which come from the Thirties. The second disc comes from sources in the
Forties and thus I presume would sound even better. At any rate, both
now rank as my favorite recordings of the first two Brahms quartets.
S.G.S. (November 2018)