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Hyperion Records

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Swiss Landscape (detail) by Alexandre Calame (1810-1864)
Victoria & Albert Museum, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDA67551
Recording details: May 2007
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: November 2007
Total duration: 33 minutes 10 seconds

'The Takács Quartet … reveal anew the extraordinarily imaginative way in which [String Quartet No 2 Op 51] begins, and breath air into the intricate textures which precede the vacillating second theme. There's an absolute unanimity to their playing … this latest reading [Piano Quintet] has fire and passion aplenty, and the recording places Hough pleasingly within the overall texture … there's a feeling of coming together of ideas, with these artists—masters of colour all of them—sparking off one another in a very unstudio-ish way. And throughout, Hough's virtuosity makes light of Brahms's unforgiving textures' (Gramophone)

'These new versions from Stephen Hough and the Takács Quartet strike me as even better, and in more modern sound … in both Quintet and Quartet the performers give bright, focused, alert, almost 'classical' readings, very different from the ponderous brown studies that marked Brahms performances of yesteryear … this is an altogether recommendable release' (BBC Music Magazine)

'I'm not a fan of thick-stringed, turgid Brahms; I like to hear the inner details. That's something these players offer: everything is audible, and balances are good. The Takács create lean transparent textures with a quick, light touch; and Hough (as usual) is light on the pedal, with translucent details. Movement I is fleet, movement II has excellent flow and transparency, movement III conveys a youthful rather than 'old before his time' Brahms, with an almost magical continuity into the trio; and in movement IV, after a moody introduction, the allegro is especially effective, with waltzing hemiolas and a finale that would put Queen Mab en pointe' (American Record Guide)

'This is the finest recording of Brahms's Piano Quintet since the electrifying Eschenbach/Amadeus version … Stephen Hough and the Takács Quartet push the music about as far as it can go … one senses from the start that [Hough] is really fired up and the Takács follow him every inch of the way with playing of beguiling tonal sophistication and thrilling intensity … this is an exceptional account of a truly exceptional masterwork … the Takács gently caress and cosset this extraordinary music with a glowing sensitivity and insight … highly recommended, especially to those who normally find Brahms a composer they admire rather than fall in love with' (International Record Review)

'Stephen Hough and the Takács know what they are doing, and they do the glorious work proud. The beautiful A minor quartet also gave me pleasure' (The Sunday Times)

'The Takács Quartet bring a huge sense of enjoyment to both the Piano Quintet and the String Quartet Op 51 No 2, and it's clear that this chamber music is being revelled in by its players as much as its listeners. Stephen Hough's playing—shiny-toned, conversational, intelligent, well-balanced—is a special delight' (Classic FM Magazine)

'This is music-making on a high plane' (Fanfare, USA)

'These elegant Brahms performances manage to elucidate the darker, more turbulent emotions of the composer while maintaining a sense of intimacy' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

'The first and last movements are serious essays in solid musical thought, with ideas clothed in solid harmonic dress. The inner ones are hardly less weighty, but serenely beautiful and energetically vigorous, respectively. The Takács Quartet and Stephen Hough are ideal interpreters, and the quartet's approach to the mellower—but equally rewarding—A minor work is likewise impressive' (Manchester Evening News)

''Definitive' is a dangerous word to use about any performance, especially when the work in question is the rich and repeatedly recorded Piano Quintet Op 34 by Brahms. But this eloquent, expansive and altogether thrilling account by the Takács Quartet and pianist Stephen Hough tempts a listener to invoke every superlative in the book. Both in its broad design and in its attentively wrought details, this is music making of a very high order. Phrasing is by turns lyrically wistful, swaggering and teasingly restrained. The Andante dies away mysteriously. The Scherzo strides off with almost frightening intensity. The final movement unfolds as a seamless, gripping narrative. A choice performance of the String Quartet Op 51, No 2, made sly, tender and muscular by the Takács, is a worthy companion piece' (San Francisco Chronicle)

'Stephen Hough's Brahmsian credentials were established relatively early in his recording career, with a scintillatingly brilliant, grandly heroic and refreshingly individual account of the B flat Concerto. A recording of the F minor Quintet with him and the Takács Quartet was predestined to be a 'must have'. And so it is. The integration of piano and strings, like the integration of the strings amongst themselves, is exemplary, textures are clear and monumental in equal measure. the rhythmic thrust, on the whole, is weighty but never stodgy, and the music never for a moment flags … the scherzo, with its combination of immensity, intimacy and vital physicality, gives us, as does the finale, the very essence of Brahms playing at its best' (Piano, Germany)

String Quartet in A minor, Op 51 No 2
composer
preliminary version circa 1865; published by Simrock in 1873; dedicated to Theodor Billroth, though probably written for Joseph Joachim

Allegro non troppo  [12'40]
Andante moderato  [8'39]

Other recordings available for download
New Budapest Quartet
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
It was Brahms’s early biographer Max Kalbeck who first drew attention to the significance of the fact that the opening theme of the A minor String Quartet Op 51 No 2 was centred around the notes F–A–E—an apparent allusion to Joachim’s personal motto, ‘Frei, aber einsam’ (‘free, but lonely’). Those notes are followed by a rhythmically more strongly defined motif which is to become the focus of much attention during the movement’s central development section. The main theme itself has a ‘rocking’ accompaniment in triplet rhythm on the viola; and the viola is to resume that same rhythm as a background to the gently swaying second subject in the major (sempre mezza voce, grazioso ed animato is Brahms’s evocative performance direction). As for the little motif that follows Joachim’s motto, the seamless transition from development to recapitulation sees it smoothed out; and it is this smoother version that is subsequently used to launch the movement’s quicker coda.

Whether or not Brahms was consciously aware of it, the theme of the slow movement is essentially an inverted form of the opening Allegro’s second subject. The sonority in which the theme is first heard is of a leanness that might have appealed to Haydn. It has the melody entrusted to the first violin, while viola and cello accompany with a smoothly flowing line moving in parallel octaves. Following this two-stranded texture, the full quartet sound emerges only gradually. For his contrasting middle section Brahms again takes a leaf out of Schubert’s book, and writes a dramatic, agitated passage in the minor. But the outburst is short-lived, before the emergence of a resigned, warmly lyrical theme in the major. It is this new theme that will later be used to bring the piece to a gentle conclusion—but not before Brahms has presented a full-scale reprise of the opening theme in the ‘wrong’ key of F major. The false reprise, if such it is, is perhaps Brahms’s compensation for the fact that all four of the quartet’s movements are in the same tonality of A.

For his third movement, Brahms makes a nostalgic return to the world of the eighteenth-century minuet. But this is no straightforward minuet, and in place of a trio it has a delicate scherzo-like passage in a quicker tempo. It is, then, a dual-purpose piece of a kind more often found in Brahms’s three-movement works, where the centrepiece can function as slow movement and scherzo rolled into one—as it does in the Violin Sonata in A major Op 100 and the String Quintet in F major Op 88. In the A minor String Quartet the integration between the two opposing types of material is particularly subtle: the scherzo-like passage is briefly interrupted by a return to the tempo of the minuet—once again in the ‘wrong’ key; but rather than invoke the minuet’s actual theme, the intervention is based on the melodic outline of the scherzo.

The finale derives much of its tension from a metrical conflict between theme and accompaniment. The main subject gives the impression of being largely in duple metre, while its emphatic chordal accompaniment is in a firm triple time. The phrases of the theme’s second half, moreover, divide the 3/4 bar into two equal halves of one-and-half beats, so that the accompaniment, remaining very much on the beat, sounds more dislocated than ever. The conflict is resolved towards the end of the piece, where the theme is transmuted into a gentle, albeit syncopated, waltz in the major. But in the end Brahms will have none of such whimsy, and the music turns back to the minor, and hurtles inexorably towards an accelerated conclusion.

from notes by Misha Donat © 2007


Other albums featuring this work
'Brahms: String Quartets Op 51' (CDA66651)
Brahms: String Quartets Op 51
MP3 £4.00FLAC £4.00ALAC £4.00Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA66651  Archive Service; also available on CDS44331/42   Download currently discounted
'Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music' (CDS44331/42)
Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
MP3 £35.00FLAC £35.00ALAC £35.00Buy by post £40.00 CDS44331/42  12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)  
'Brahms: String Quartets & Piano Quintet' (CDD22018)
Brahms: String Quartets & Piano Quintet
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99 CDD22018  2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) — Deleted  

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