BRAHMS: String Quartets (Complete) – Auryn Quartet – Tacet (2 CDs)

by | Jul 12, 2008 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: String Quartets (Complete) – Auryn Quartet – Tacet 155 (2 CDs), 102:16 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:The Auryn Quartet, despite relative longevity, is probably not a name known to most. They should be—there is some wonderful playing in this set, and in fact Tacet lists this as “The Auryn Series Vol. XVI”. It seems unfair to rehearse the successes of the past when making comparisons. The Op. 51 quartets were written at about the same time Brahms was struggling with his First Symphony, Op. 67 coming along some years later, and the latter greatly favored by the composer as the best of the three. None of these pieces, despite many virtues, rank among the greatest chamber works of the composer. The F-minor Piano Quintet is far superior, as is the incandescent Clarinet Quintet and Trio. But Brahms is Brahms, and even the sense of uncertainty that plagues these pieces, and the lack of memorable melodies, do not detract from the fact that a master wrote them. Indeed, Brahms destroyed everything that he deemed inferior, and only kept works destined for publication, though chamber music for the general populace was not really available at the time except in certain circumstances. It is said that the composer burned over 20 quartets he had written before the advent of Op. 51!

I mentioned the successes of the past in order to concentrate on one success of the present—that of the Emerson Quartet in these same works, plus the F-minor Quintet with Leon Fleischer on a  DGG album whom Laurence Vittes said sets a new standard. I am not sure I would go that far, as I remain partial to the Cleveland Telarc recording for the Op. 51, and Fleischer’s own Columbia recording (available on private release) with the Juilliard Quartet is a remarkable exercise in rhythmic tautness and emotional vigor. But the DGG is exceptional to be sure, and has a little of that tightness and fervency that this Tacet recording lacks. The ensemble plays splendidly of course, and if you like your Brahms a little relaxed then this may be just the ticket. I enjoyed it very much, and the sonics, while lacking the bass of the DGG, are more spacious and natural sounding. But the DGG has a price/program advantage in that its two CDs adds the Quintet, and here we have only the quartets. Too bad—there is some fine music making here, despite the relaxed approach. But those on a budget, or just coming to this music, will definitely want the best deal available, and that is probably the DGG, though there are to be had some excellent performances of all the quartets and quintets on two separate Philips “Two-fers” at budget price.

— Steven Ritter

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