BBC Legends BBCL 4009-2, 42:34; 38:44 (Distrib. Koch) ****:
Two sterling performances from Royal Festival Hall, London grace this wonderful album, one of those easy-to-miss items from the BBC live concert collection which collectors will rue if not included among their chamber music delectations. The great British pianist Clifford Curzon (1907-1982) began performing with the Amadeus String Quartet in 1952, for their first Decca sessions. The Brahms Quintet from 7 November 1974 projects an almost grim determination of intent from the opening notes, and the level of execution is peerless, transcending the 1950 commercial recording Curzon made with the Budapest Quartet for CBS.
Norman Brainin’s lead violin makes its visceral presence known throughout, and many have called Siegmund Nissel “simply the best second violinist in the world.” The second movement of the Brahms Quintet–the whole work is in fact an extended homage to Schubert–utilizes Schubert’s song “Pause” most effectively, singing via this ensemble with melancholy passion. The Scherzo raises all sorts of Bismarckian Cain from the outset, communicating as much menace as it does visceral mania. The Finale, with its almost 12-tone theme, rises out of Martin Lovett’s cello and then assumes the momentum of a train engineered by the Grim Reaper. As the last note of this wicked performance decays, there is a “Bravo!” to remember.
As somberly driven as the Brahms is, the 1 February 1971 Schubert Trout Quintet glides with buoyant tenderness. Everything about this rendition shines, not the least of which is nimble agility of articulation between players, the sense of musical relaxation which proves such a tonic after the obsessive character of the Brahms. The little trills in the first variation of the Forelle tune seem to lift into the musical ionosphere. Curzon’s piano bubbles as much as it delivers the grand Viennese line. The music breezes along so effortlessly, you find yourself astonished be in the throes of the last movement, perplexed as to how all that beauty could have passed you by. So, you will have to play through the disc again. . . .On the Must List, this one.