Recorded 23-26 May 2008 at St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, these two, graceful and finely etched Brahms quartets by the Takacs Quartet might be dedicated to the Greek goddess Themis, the keeper of Divine Balance. From the first notes of the B-flat Major Quartet (1876), we feel the composer’s strong association with both Mozart’s Hunt Quartet and the Vienna Woods. But the influence of Schubert proves no less palpable in the cross-rhythms that infiltrate the marvelous first movement, fertile figures that rock and bounce with more than a touch of the composer’s youth. The Takacs’ firm grip on the music does not belie the warm affection of their interplay, clear and propulsive at once. The F Major Andante several times explodes in passionately lyrical episodes that take on symphonic sonority, then return to a concertante dialogue between violin and viola. What might have passed for Mendelssohn becomes much darker, descending to the relative D Minor and again passing through wonderful modulations in the manner of idol Schubert. The throaty, instrumental voice of cellist Andras Fejer grounds the proceedings in ripe harmony.
Viola Geraldine Walther has her grandly soaring moments in the third movement, an agitated Allegretto in which her partners play con sordino. The dark hues at several points anticipate the storm and stress of the F Major Symphony. The entirely gemuetlich spirit of the final movement’s theme and variations certainly suits the Clarinet Quintet of later Brahms vintage; the viola once again makes its plaints with broad strokes. Violin Edward Diusinberre enjoys an extended, floral variation over the resonance of his colleagues. We dip into the tonic minor for more than a moment that resembles Tchaikovsky. The first movement theme reappears; in fact, several motivic impulses become involved, beyond the hunting theme, so that the unity of work, perhaps hidden, reveals itself in lushly plastic harmony.
The Brahms C Minor Quartet appeared in 1873 after a long gestation that may have sacrificed many attempts at the medium with which Brahms remained displeased. A “fate” motif surrounds this work as it does the First Symphony, an agitation perhaps traceable to the Beethoven symphony in the same key. Cello and viola vie in emotional upheaval, but none of the four instruments finds much peace, even in the ostensibly lyrical episodes. A decided air of haunted mystery permeates the opening movement, the Takacs’ tremolandi and Walther’s bouncing bow producing some eerily magisterial effects. A false recapitulation occurs when the main theme returns before the hearty C Minor has been re-established.
The opening of the Romanze hints at the second movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, then becomes a fervent and expressive vehicle for the Dusinberre-Walther duet. The loving, tender sequences which ensue might have woven a set of variants; but there is no repeat, and the opening reappears with a resonant, burnished cello beneath. The F Minor third movement moves quite fast, given its Allegretto designation, swirling even as it marches forward, a bit reminiscent of the Berlioz Harold in Italy pilgrims’ march. The viola-violin duet plays as a serenade in the manner of Mozart. The middle section remains famous for its bariolage and pizzicato effects, likely borrowed from Haydn. A spasm of Romantic Agony opens the last movement, Dusinberre leading, but the viola and cello early make emotionally turbulent points that move into contrapuntal figures without losing their emotional force, particularly in Fejer‘s cello and in the virtuosic figures from second violin, Karoly Schranz. The fervent playing several times, in its symphonic ardor, rivals the Tragic Overture for economy of means and forceful expression. Powerful Brahms at any price.