I recently had an interesting exchange with a good friend and Brahms scholar about why the two string quintets tend to receive less attention than the composer’s other major chamber works. In her opinion, they get short shrift for two main reasons:
1. String quintets in general get played less frequently due to the lack of regularly constituted ensembles.
2. The Brahms quintets are, to be fair, comparatively thick-textured and contrapuntally intricate, especially the first in F major (which also has a very original, three-movement structure).
It’s impossible to disagree with this assessment. This is serious music, compact but still very rich in content. The long central slow movement of the F major Quintet combines the functions of adagio and scherzo, much like a Dvořák Dumka, but the melodic language is mature Brahms and the mood rather more subdued (the slow bits are actually marked 'Grave') than anything by Brahms’s Czech colleague. Nevertheless, it’s an extremely beautiful work, as is the G major Quintet, sort of a grown-up and more reflective version of the earlier Sextet in the same key. Its Adagio is one of the most lyrically concentrated and harmonically intense of all Brahms’s slow movements, and that’s saying a lot.
The performances here are lovely: flowing, well balanced, and emotionally generous but never self-indulgent. Special guest violist Lawrence Power blends perfectly with his colleagues, and cellist András Fejér deserves special mention for clarifying Brahms always critically important bass lines without turning excessively gruff and grotty. Brahms doesn’t make the cellist’s life easy in either work, but you’d never know it. Hyperion’s engineering is very fine. If you’re in the market for these works apart from the larger Brahms chamber music boxes, you can hardly do better than this release.