“BRAHMS by Heart” = String Quartet No. 1 in c minor, Op. 51 No. 1; String Quartet No. 2 in a minor, Op. 51 No. 2; String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major, Op. 67; String Quintet in G Major, Op. 111 – Chiara String Q./ Roger Tapping, viola – Azica ACD 71289 (two discs), 70:47, (Distr. by Naxos) 68:28 ****:
Brahms’ first two string quartets bear somewhat the same relationship to each other that his first two symphonies do. The composer is supposed to have labored for twenty years in the quartet medium, destroying as many false starts in as many years before he finally let his Op. 51 No. 1 see the light of day. Even then, its gestation was a long and arduous one. Brahms’s friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim, claimed that Brahms was slaving over this work in draft as far back as 1865, completing it, along with the Second Quartet, only while on summer holiday in the Bavarian resort town of Tutzing in 1873.
As this genesis suggests, Op. 51 No. 2 cost Brahms a lot less grief. As with the sunny Symphony No. 2, the composer’s relative ease of composition shows. While the First Quartet, like the First Symphony, has a monumentality and granitic toughness about it, the Second Quartet is more relaxed and, for me at least, more appealing. As with the Second Symphony, there is a pastoral easiness to the Second Quartet that perhaps recalls the composer’s surroundings at Tutzing. Brahms even dispenses with a scherzo here, substituting the Quasi minuetto – moderato third movement, an intermezzo reminiscent of the comparable movement in the Second Symphony. In point of fact, the quartet is a mostly relaxed affair until the finale, an energetic Hungarian-style movement that recalls the finales of the First Piano Quartet and Violin Concerto.
From a rather quick and cursory review of current recordings, it would appear that Brahms’s Second Quartet is the favorite with performers and audiences, too, and that the Third Quartet is the odd piece out whenever a string quartet chooses to record a single disc of Brahms quartets. The first movement is even more laid back than that of the Second Quartet and may, as the notes to the present recording contend, take as inspiration the “jolly” first movement of Mozart’s rather jolly “Hunt” Quartet (K. 458). The notes also point up a number of interesting parallels to Beethoven’s quartets. In the case of Brahms’s No. 3, the parallels are to Beethoven’s Op. 74, the “Harp” Quartet. They have similar key relationships; both feature a solo for the viola, which is rather unusual in a string quartet; and both are the only quartets by their respective composers that end with a variations-form movement. Brahms favored this form for his concluding movements: the Fourth Symphony and the great Clarinet Quintet end with variations. For me, the variations finale of the Third Quartet suffers from a little too much Viennese Gemütlichkeit. I’m not sure if this is the consensus of opinion on the matter, but for whatever reason, No. 3 seems to be the least favored of Brahms’s quartets.
Speaking of the viola, the String Quintet No. 2 adds a viola to the string quartet, giving the ensemble a special resonance in the midrange and helping lend this work its almost symphonic grandness. The two violas have a special prominence in the third movement. Like the Second String Quartet, the Quintet has Hungarian-musical overtones, especially in the rumbustious finale.
The title of this album, “Brahms by Heart,” may seem a little arch, but it does speak to the special affinity the award-winning Chiara Quartet apparently feels for Brahms’s music. Then again, as a note about the recording process reveals, the title actually refers to the fact that the Chiara was unsatisfied with their initial recordings of these works and so recorded them again from scratch, by which time the players certainly knew Brahms “by heart.” Well, it might be interesting to hear some of those earlier takes to see if one could fathom what the quartet was so displeased with, but in any event, the final product speaks to special care and discernment. Beauty of tone is a factor as well; this is a very suave-sounding group of string players. And it helps that their playing is captured in radiant sound, in the famous acoustics of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. These performances may not instantly displace your old favorites, but I predict they’ll sit very comfortably beside them and will almost certainly surpass them in terms of recorded sound.