Limelight Editor’s Choice – Chamber – September, 2014

Was there really any doubt that this latest release from the Takács Quartet would be superb? Their previous discs of Brahms (including the Piano Quintet, Op 34 with Stephen Hough, and recordings of the string quartets) have been revelatory. 

In writing these two quintets, Brahms chose to follow Mozart’s example in his choice of configuration for the strings with doubled viola, rather than the Schubertian choice of a second cello. Here, the Takács Quartet is joined by violist Lawrence Power to give powerful, dark-toned performances of Brahms’s string quintets.

“Here is a marvellous example of how to work closely with other players in chamber music”

The first quintet (in F Major, Op 88) was thought of by Brahms as one of his best works – he wrote to Clara Schumann boasting about it, and wrote to his publisher Simrock, saying simply, “You have never before had such a beautiful work from me”. It’s in this first quintet that Lawrence Power particularly shines, his tone enriching the texture most beautifully. The additional viola is given several extensive solos, and they’re played with passion and verve.

In the slow movement, Brahms writes in the rather unusual double variation form, where two themes are varied alternately. The players here have a chance to demonstrate their ability to finesse fine distinctions of colour and timbre, and the blending of the instruments in this recording is something to behold. To all string players in training, here is a marvellous example of how to work closely with other players in chamber music. The last movement, with its fugal entries, thunders through to an emphatically definite conclusion, complete with surging passages from the entire ensemble. 

The second quintet (in G Major, Op 111) opens with a notoriously awkward passage on the cello that’s executed with aplomb by the Takács’ András Fejér (the famous violinist Joseph Joachim attempted to convince Brahms to remove it in favour of something more comfortable, without success). There are some truly thrilling moments, with live-wire crescendos and decrescendos that bring the music to life. Particularly enjoyable are the questioning third movement allegretto, with a delightfully stop-start accompaniment, and the joyful last movement, which is reminiscent of Dvorˇák in its rustic charm.

Throughout the entire disc, it’s clear that the Takács Quartet have given a great deal of time and thought to the overarching structure of these works, and it’s something that’s paid off. These are very fine recordings, and it’s difficult to imagine how one would set about improving on them. A definite success!

Purchase this album on the iTunes Store: Brahms: String Quintets – Takács Quartet & Lawrence Power