Brahms: String Quintets Nos. 1 & 2 (CD)

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Maria Lambros, New Zealand String Quartet

Seen as the successor to Beethoven by many of his contemporaries, Johannes Brahms combined traditional form with an originality of musical language that has inspired generations of composers. His two string quintets are, like Mozart’s, scored with two violas for richness of texture and harmonic depth. The positive mood of the First String Quintet reflects the sunny resort of Bad Ischl where Brahms composed during the spring of 1882, while his Second String Quintet combines symphonic breadth with nostalgic melancholy in what was originally intended to be his final chamber work.

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Brahms String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111
1. I. Allegro non troppo, ma con brio
2. II. Adagio
3. III. Un poco allegretto
4. IV. Vivace ma non troppo presto

Brahms String Quintet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 88
5. I. Allegro non troppo ma con brio
6. II. Grave ed appassionato
7. III. Allegro energico

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Late Brahms without the sugar coating



The two String Quintets Op. 88 and Op. 111 (for two violins, two violas and cello) are late chamber works of Brahms. Being in major keys they fall into his most mellow, autumnal style. That is not to say the writing is in any way simplistic: it is as harmonically and texturally imaginative as ever - just more relaxed than his early Beethoven-influenced works. Nevertheless, it is music that can come across as too cosy. For my taste, some old school performances push warmth too far into sweetness. For comparative purposes I listened to the 1968 DG recording by the Amadeus Quartet with guest violist Cecil Aronowitz and found it beautiful, polished, full of lovely moments, but cloying. It is a particular trap with these works because of the extra violas filling out the mid-range. (A honey trap, you might say.)

The New Zealand String Quartet and violist Maria Lambros take a vivid approach. The music may sound less luscious from moment to moment, but it is alive. That is not to say the New Zealanders are inexpressive - they are perfectly balanced and deal in subtle dynamic shading - but their tone has sinew. They have made a clear choice to clarity Brahms' textures at every point, which is a distinct plus in the finales. They may be more straightforward than the Amadeus in the viola's waltz theme in the first movement of Quintet No. 2, where the older musicians produce a Viennese lilt (reminding us of Brahms' admiration for Johannes Strauss), but listen to the dramatic point of the closing sections of No. 2's 'Adagio'. Under the New Zealanders, this is 'edge of your seat' stuff.

It is easy to understand why Naxos has chosen the New Zealand String Quartet for a Brahms series: they clearly have a way with the composer. They have already recorded his three String Quartets and the Clarinet Quintet (with the excellent clarinetist James Campbell). As an ensemble they have played together for over 20 years, and it shows. If you don't yet know these wonderful Quintets, or you prefer your Brahmsian coffee without extra sugar, this disc is for you. 5 STARS