BRAHMS: String Quartets 1-3 and Piano Quintet Op. 34 – Emerson String Quartet/ Leon Fleisher, piano – DGG

by | May 23, 2007 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: String Quartets 1 – 3 and Piano Quintet Op. 34 – Emerson String Quartet/ Leon Fleisher, piano – DGG (2 CDs), 63:47, 78:17, ****:

The Emerson Quartet has found a near ideal way to celebrate their 30th anniversary, as well as 20 years with Deutsche Grammophon. With the help of pianist Leon Fleisher, whose comeback proceeds in great galloping strides, the Emersons have provided a virtual orgy of Brahms that, in its precise elegance and light-handed passion, sets a brilliant new standard for recordings of this repertoire. Meanwhile, DG’s engineers, working at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, have captured the proceedings with a rare combination of power and delicacy, enabling the musicians to make their case with the full force of their personalities, both individual and massed.

My past experience with the Emerson has been of a brilliantly intelligent chamber music machine, too often seeming to self-consciously manipulate their command of whatever music was put before them to impress listeners. Here, however, everything is spontaneous, authentic, genuine. Illuminating touches abound without once disturbing Brahms’s pure musical flow or marginalizing his overarching dramatic structure.

In the Quintet, the balance with Fleisher, who adds both a masterful gravitas and a luminous, life-giving energy and purpose, is extraordinary. Enabled by the superb recording, the clarity and transparency of the balance is not only physically thrilling, it materially contributes to the musical construction. Whether it’s a violinist’s subtle slide to a throwaway harmonic or a surge of keyboard rhetoric, there are no negative side effects, the soundstage remains undistorted, the musical progress undiminished.  

In fact, the performance of the Quintet is so astonishing that I wish someone would release a set with the music in its three evolutionary guises: the String Quintet it began life as, the two-piano version which Brahms fashioned along the way, and its end point as the version in which we know it today.

The set’s dedication to the parents of violinist Philip Setzer makes a nice counterpoint to the fact that Brahms dedicated the Quartets to his close friends, Doctor Billroth and Professor Engelmann. Walter Frisch’s informative program notes are breathless and easy to read, and the booklet contains two rare, intimate photographs of Brahms and his friends.  

– Laurence Vittes

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