BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in f; SCHUMANN: String Quartet No. 1 – M. Pressler, p./ Pacifica Q. – Cedille

by | Mar 27, 2017 | Classical CD Reviews

An unusual pairing sets music of Brahms and Schumann together as masters of their respective idiom.

BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in f, Op. 34; SCHUMANN: String Quartet No. 1 in a, Op. 41 – Menahem Pressler, p./ Pacifica Quartet – Cedille CDR 90000 170, 71:39 (3/10/17) [Distr. by Naxos] ****: 

The etiology of the Brahms 1865 Piano Quintet (rec. 19-21 November 2014) has become common parlance, its having experienced two prior incarnations, as both a string quintet and a sonata for two pianos. The latter incarnation still survives and occasionally finds acolytes (as Op. 34b) in devoted musicians who wish to endure what the composer lamented as its “lack of charm.” And true, the opening Allegro non troppo does project a sense of broad melancholy, set as two contrasting ideas which provide the through-composed nature of the entire movement. Pressler (at ninety-one) himself can still impress us with his suave, cascading runs. The “symphonic” aspect of the writing constantly urges the music to the limit of what the ensemble can project without distortion. Much of the music’s evolution takes cues from Beethoven and Schubert, particularly the latter’s combination of grandeur and intimate nostalgia. Menahem Pressler and the Pacifica Quartet take a moderate tempo for most of the movement, imbuing a resolutely somber cast on this music that does occasionally become tumultuously inflamed.

The Andante takes its melodic inspiration directly from Schubert’s lied Pause, and like a song, the music moves in a large, ternary structure. The counter-melody inserts some of Schumann’s dreamy influence into the mix, particularly in the sighing figures from Simon Ganatra’s violin and Brandon Vamos’ throaty cello tones. Mid-way, the music seems to falter in reserved dolor, then proceeds to the song, whose texture in piano and string chords resembles much in Schubert’s E-flat Piano Trio.

The Scherzo exerts a kind of Bismarckian, Teutonic aggression, often invoking the four-beat motto we know from Beethoven. Pressler and the Pacifica players imbue this stolid march with half-step, syncopated heft and resolute propulsion. The formerly pizzicato pedal in the cello suddenly opens into a legato arioso in the Trio, but with no less tension from subterranean syncopes. The da capo features pert attacks from violaist Masumi Per Rostad. Arnold Schoenberg pointed out how many notes of the chromatic scale Brahms utilizes for the eerie opening of his Poco sostenuto section of the Finale, prefiguring the Second Viennese School of serialism. The grueling figures sob and lament in the strings over Pressler’s bleak chords. Suddenly, Brahms introduces a tune lifted from Schubert’s Grand Duo for 2 Pianos, Between lyrical buoyancy and fierce militancy, the music proceeds in something of gypsy sensibility we recall from the Op. 25 Piano Quartet and its debt to Haydn. The individual, incisive colors from the Pacifica strings has been well captured by Producer/Engineer Judith Sherman. Brahms builds his climax in a double sense, by developing one hundred measures of what should have been his coda.


Robert Schumann devoted much of 1842 to the creation of string quartets.  Having immersed himself in models in the medium by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and even – for counterpoint’s sake – Bach, Schumann proceeded to fashion his opening Introduzione of Op. 41, No. 1 (rec. 2-3 May 2016) as a polyphonic study  in canon, and then moving to a seemingly unrelated Allegro in F Major. Some of the darker intrusions into the semi-improvisational scheme may suggest Eusebius, the introspective persona in Schumann’s psyche.  The Pacifica imbues the forward thrusts in the movement with a determination that quite resembles Beethoven.

Schumann dedicated his three quartets, Op. 41 to Mendelssohn, and one might associate aspects of this quartet’s third movement Scherzo to the elfin figures in its otherwise drumlike, galloping impulses with that composer’s penchant for fairy dust. The Trio in this second movement modulates to the major mode and offers a moment of repose in somewhat angular figures.  Cello and violin initiate (in recitative) the motives of the Adagio, an extended aria which testifies to Schumann’s innate lyric gift. Hints of Beethoven’s last Quartet in F, Op. 135 tiptoe by, with plaintive figures from Brandon Vamos’ cello. A degree of agitation infiltrates the song, only to yield to the original, tender energy, plaintively enunciated by Simin Ganatra’s violin. The last movement, Presto, has been labeled “spiky” by several commentators, but its real virtuosity lies in the “learned” method of its counterpoint colored by gypsy – and later – bagpipe drones.  Rostad’s viola adds considerable bluster to the procession as the music propels and unfolds in inversion and stretto, moving into A Major. Before he has concluded, Schumann manages to convert the tune into a kind of misty chorale, once more invoking the shade of Beethoven.  The Pacifica holds back momentarily, only to unleash the primary rhythm in heated running notes to a resolute coda.

—Gary Lemco

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