BRAHMS: The Complete String Quartets – Auryn String Quartet series Vol. XVI – single Tacet multichannel DVD-Audio D155, 102:16 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
Johannes Brahms spent years attempting to write string quartets. Working under the shadow of Beethoven was too challenging for the young composer and it is believed that he burnt as many as 20 string quartets before finally publishing his first two in 1873 as Op. 51. The two quartets, both in minor keys, are characteristic Brahmsian works with a highly compressed musical syntax that seems emotionally withdrawn to many listeners. Their textures are dense and their melodies are made up of short motifs that are used almost as building blocks to erect a musical structure that gains in ingenuity what it loses in easy accessibility.The String Quartet in C minor Op. 51/1 is probably the most difficult of the three for a listener to embrace. There is something a little distant and cold in the way the melody progresses with extreme angularity. Brahms does not expand his movements outward with a sinuous melodic flow the way Mozart or Beethoven might do in a quartet. Rather he hints at melodies by expanding snippets of music that he repeats and changes, slowly enlarging the vocabulary of the work. The unfolding music is not initially obvious to a listener. It requires careful attention; replaying a movement or even the entire piece is often necessary in order to appreciate the quartet. It is hardly surprising that Arnold Schoenberg considered the Op. 51 quartets to be worthy of his admiration, modeling his own work on principles that he discovered in Brahms.
Brahms also blurs the borderline between the development and the recapitulation in both quartets, depriving the listener of a definite point of orientation. He frequently slows down the opening notes of a theme until it is almost unrecognizable. In the Quartet in A minor Op. 51/2 he varies the meter while also concealing the main theme of the recapitulation under a number of variants. The listener is unaware that the recapitulation has been reached until it is already well under way. Although the music of this quartet is slightly less dark than its partner, its mood is quite similar to the first one. By blurring the borders of movements and making melody often seem strictly functional, Brahms managed to create a number of hurdles for listeners to overcome. Both of the Op. 51 quartets have never been as popular as his other chamber music.
The Auryn Quartet plays both Op. 51 quartets with an ease and confidence that enable the listener to forget the composer’s manufactured complexities. Their tone is sufficiently dark to remind the listener that Brahms is, after all, a Romantic composer. They play with a slight legato, giving the music a greater sense of flow. The members of the Auryn engage in a mutual conversation that never seems to be forced. But they always provide that necessary spirit of inwardness that is the most unique aspect of Brahms’ music.
The final string quartet that Brahms composed, the String Quartet in B flat major Op. 67, is his sunniest and most accessible. Here darkness gives way to the innocence and joy of nature with the added excitement of the hunt. This quartet owes its beautiful disposition to Haydn for there is much in its playfulness and effortless flow of melody that is reminiscent of the great Classical composer. Composed in 1875 it was immediately popular and has remained so. Brahms himself considered it his best string quartet. The Auryn Quartet really shines in their performance of this piece. They play it with such finesse and grace that one smiles throughout the work, usually yielding to the temptation to replay it. It is a fitting end to a splendid disc.
The sound quality of this audio DVD is simply superb, with an immediacy and presence that gives one the illusion of a live performance. The soundfield is both wide and deep, all around you – using Tacet’s “Real Surround Sound” which places the listener in the midst of the quartet. Each of the four instruments is in its own definite aural space while allowing each one to bloom. Tacet specializes in this form of surround sound and the results are excellent. And all three quartets are offered on a single audio DVD, making it a bargain as well if you have DVD-A playback capability. [We reviewed the original standard CD version of this release about a year ago, and it required two CDs. Check the earlier review for a somewhat different take on the album…Ed.]
– – Mike Birman