The repertoire for string quintet with second viola isn’t extensive, but small as it is, it’s still a treasure chest. What a shame, then, that it’s only the more adventurous quartets—the ones with close viola associates—that are prepared to take them on. Here are two works that ought to be valued alongside Brahms’s Piano and Clarinet Quintets. The Second String Quintet, particularly, is one of his most admirable and lovable large-scale works. But it’s also as challenging interpretatively as any of the Symphonies. So when this Quintet is performed or recorded, it’s rarely with the depth of understanding it needs.
Fortunately, the Takács Quartet and Lawrence Power show every indication of having given a lot of thought to both works. Everything sounds as though it has been thought through extensively. The fascinatingly fluid slow-movement-plus-scherzo that forms the centrepiece of the First Quintet is beautifully conceived. The impassioned, long opening paragraph of the Second is a magnificent balance of rich tonal weight and soaring momentum (perfectly caught by the recording); the Adagio is darkly eloquent and the finale’s rhythms are clean-cut and full of springing vitality. What we don’t get are the Romantic shadows and elf-lights, or the tender, sensitive Brahms half-hidden behind the bluff assertion. The Second Quintet’s 'Un poco allegretto'—more ghostly waltz than scherzo or minuet—is finely wrought but lacking in subtler nuance. The Takács’s Brahms is like a superbly engineered road: we always know where we’re going, and the views can be magnificent, but there are some interesting contours hidden beneath the tarmac.