Budapest Quartet Plays Brahms – String Quartets Nos. 2, 3; String Sextet No. 2; String Quintets Nos. 1, 2 – Pristine Audio

by | May 23, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BUDAPEST QUARTET plays BRAHMS = Budapest Quartet Plays Brahms – String Quartets Nos. 2, 3; String Sextet No. 2; String Quintets Nos. 1, 2 – [complete listing below] Pristine Audio PACM 119 (2 CDs: 2:26:04) [] *****: 

Veteran producer and recording engineer Mark Obert-Thorn turns his scrupulous attentions to the Budapest Quartet legacy in Brahms, 1932-1937, the documents set down in the HMV studios. In the course of these sessions, the personnel of the Budapest Quartet altered, with the departure of Hungarian Istvan Ipolyi, viola, in 1936, to be replaced by Boris Kroyt. Whatever temperamental differences residing within the ensemble, their issues led only to a uniformity of style in their finished products. Critic Harris Goldsmith compared their lean, direct approach to the quartet equivalent of Arturo Toscanini, sharing the Maestro’s rhythmic vigor and vitality of expression. 

The set opens with the Brahms A Minor Quartet of 1873, HMV’s having already contracted the Busch Quartet for the C Minor Quartet, Op. 51/1. The recording, set down April 30-May 1, 1935, despite some residual hiss from the 78 rpm shellacs, conveys the clarity and warmth of conception, especially as the dolente realization of the F-A-E (free but lonely) motif wends it way through the first movement texture. Originally, Brahms might have intended the Quartet for friend and violinist Joseph Joachim, but a falling-out had ensued over Joachim’s relations with his wife, with whose part Brahms had sympathized. 

The heart of the work, the expansive, second movement Andante moderato, enjoys a grand, sentimental leisure, at least as far as the marcato middle section, where first violin Joseph Roisman and cellist Mischa Schneider engage in a rhythmic, canonic dialogue. This passionate outburst calls for dotted rhythms and angular, disjunct melodic progressions. The crisis passes, and the surface calm returns to offer consolation. The third movement, marked Quasi Minuetto, moderato – Allegretto vivace, yields to the composer’s penchant for learned antiquarianism. Its vague and misty opening asserts a Romantic’s notion of space and time, not far from Mendelssohn’s trips amongst Shakespearean sprites. The Trio enjoys Brahms’s playful, agogic intricacy, no less infiltrated by counterpoints. The eerie transition back to the da capo remains a high point. The art of polyphony invades the Finale – Allegro non assai, though its tenor conforms to the composer’s early experience with Hungarian and Magyar impulses. Despite the music’s challenges in rhythm and canonic entries, the spirit of joyous enthusiasm, brilliantly realized by fervent and capable musicians in the coda, proves delectably stylish.

The 1876 B-flat Quartet (recorded 15-18 November 1932 in Berlin) seems to refrain from the usual Brahms pessimism and adapt a more humorous sensibility. The initial Vivace first movement indulges in hunting-horn gymnastics, rather a tour de force for the ensemble. The variety in the delegation of triplet figures allows for energy and sentiment to alternate in dazzling bursts of light and autumnal shadow. In those moments of darker hues, we tend to consider the close association of Brahms with Dvorak. The second movement, Andante, casts a melancholy reminiscent of musical mentor and idol Robert Schumann, the music harmonized as to allow Roisman’s top line and Schneider’s hearty bass tones ample resonance. 

Equally notable, Ipolyi’s viola part contributes to the valediction, often intoned in the spirit of a chorale. Ipolyi’s viola dominates the haunting third movement, Agitato (Allegretto non troppo), since the other three instruments are muted, and the ensuing emotion confirms the composer’s judgment of the music as “the tenderest and most impassioned I have ever written.” Dramatic unity of effect reveals itself in the composer’s use of the “hunting” theme in movement one as the source for his procedure in his Poco Allegretto con Variazioni last movement. Ipolyi’s now, much-admired viola at first reigns before receding into the web of eight variations, with the initial theme’s easy canter assuming the composer’s fluently virile capacities for ornament and intricacy. Roisman’s first violin soon supersedes the presence of the viola, though the underlying interplay of motives and colors, especially in arco and pizzicato alternation, enjoys a wonderful transparency. The gentle coda invests a fine sense of closure to this integral performance.

The G Major String Sextet of 1865 (recorded 8 February 1937) calls upon the additional talents of Alfred Hobday and Anthony Pini, respectively, for viola and cello doubling. Brahms follows Schumann in his use of a deliberate anagram in movement one, the notes A-G-A-H (B)-E, for his former inamorata, Agathe von Siebold. The yearning, opening melody, made of ascending and later descending fifths, then evolving into the secondary, “Agathe” theme, luxuriant and rife with nostalgia. At selected moments, Brahms abbreviates the Agathe motif to A-D-E, the German word of farewell. The development follows the Schubert model in the great C Major Quintet, with the “love” theme’s gaining increased passion in its various iterations. 

The Scherzo draws upon material from an 1855 gavotte Brahms conceived for a piano suite, subsequently destroyed. In G Minor, the music exhibits an elegantly archaic sound, rustic and infiltrated by canonic elements. Perhaps this music might have served as the wedding dance of Brahms and Agathe, had he allowed their romance to flourish. The Trio (Presto giocoso) section urges vigor and energy, though the interior lines permit some discord, before the cautious da capo returns, its sensibility palpably tearful until the aggressive coda. The succeeding Adagio in E Minor moves chromatically, the sighing gestures plentiful. The pizzicato line intensifies a descent into personal misery. A vague theme and variations ensue, though the melody seems lost in a sea of pungently dark effects, many “symphonically” contrapuntal. Suddenly, an extended moment of bittersweet sunlight enters the context, the mode having turned to the major. The Poco allegro last movement projects the contradictory impulses of sprightly Mendelssohn with a fervent, passionate “defense mechanism” of canonic imitation and Baroque procedures at once learned and dark in hue, sometimes in the manner of a concerto grosso. The Budapest and fellow ensemble members maintain a strong sense of tension throughout, moving to a coda no less ambiguous in its guarded optimism. 

The Budapest Quartet and viola II Alfred Hobday engage the 1882 F Major Sting Quintet (recorded 9 February 1937) with a direct, focused energy, especially given the composer’s sure hand of economy of statement. While Brahms had consulted similar genre compositions by Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn, he opts for a three- movement structure whose personnel imitate Mozart’s models. The music of the Allegro non troppo ma con brio enjoys a warm, folkish tenor, the opening theme’s having established the materials to saturate the whole movement. Listening to this rendition, especially the second thematic group in A Major, I was reminded of Janos Starker’s comment that, when asked which composer he most preferred to “read,” he stated “Brahms.” 

The expansive second movement, Grave ed appasssionato, in C# Major, embraces the Brahms penchant for older forms, the sarabande and the gavotte.  The interruptions in the dance flow occur first Allegro vivace and later Presto, inserting an ambiguous affect into the whole, so we muse between pleasure and pain. Again, the “symphonic” sonority the five instruments achieve intensifies the haunted nature of the occasion. The violas add a dire anxiousness into the nostalgia, and the coda fades most funereal in tone, A most severe introduction, Allegro energico, opens the last movement, much in the Beethoven mode; but its counterpoints prove a feint, and the music yields to a semi-amorphous sonata form that loves contrapuntal impulses. The exuberant main theme enjoys its own brand of variants and countermelodies, chugging ahead in dizzy figures, Presto, that turn the melody on its head in a surge of rambunctious spirits. 

The final work for this ambitious set, the String Quintet No. 2 in G Major dates from 1890, here, the earliest recorded entry, from Berlin,15 & 17 November 1932. Brahms originally intended this composition to be his last entry of his professional catalogue, writing to his publisher Simrock: “With this letter you can bid farewell to my music, because it is certainly time to leave off . . .” The earmarks of the composer’s late style permeate this hymn to nostalgia, from its opening Allegro non troppo, ma con brio in 9/8 to its folk finale, Vivace ma non troppo presto, in Hungarian filigree. 

Brahmsian trademarks pervade the work on all levels, from the cross accents and hemiolas in the opening 9/8 Allegro non troppo, ma con brio, to the nostalgic Hungarian recollections of his finale, Vivace ma non troppo, presto, perhaps a look back to youthful concerts with violinist Remenyi and his own set of 21 Hungarian Dances. Mischa Schneider’s potent cello launches the initial melody over pulsating strings, the music rife with cross rhythms and hemiola adjustments to the assigned, metric line. The viola introduces the counter-theme, a lilting waltz tune in D Major. The development in B-flat Major plays with both thematic groups, especially the Viennese waltz, which has become a consolation prize in the midst of old regrets. Roisman’s high violin dominates the recapitulation over tremolo accompaniment, leading to a coda that seems to develop on its own, after Brahms has restored all motifs to the tonic mode.

Brahms always favors the ripe tones of the viola, which opens the bittersweet melancholy of the D Minor Adagio. Proceeding as a series of free variations, the melody assumes a sequential order of presentation, lachrymose, almost at times a chorale that shifts between major and minor modes. A bitter paroxysm of despair erupts, a descent into a personal abyss. With a short, shared cadenza, the initial theme returns, lingering in the bass harmonies, a sustained, pedal nostalgia. The Allegretto intermezzo in G Minor, which serves as a scherzo surrogate, had served Brahms as a mode of expression in his first three symphonies. The wistful song in triple meter may well remind auditors of the third movement of the F Major Symphony, Op. 90. Long time friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg found the two interior movements remarkable for “their perfect unity of emotion, vigor and effect.” The last movement, asks the predominantly Russian ensemble – with one Hungarian and one German – to intone the gypsy high spirits here infiltrated by fugal elements, the folk and the learned impulses in perfect collaboration. The last pages virtually fly in ecstatic grandeur, with no auditory sign that we hear a performance from 90 years past.

—Gary Lemco 


String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 51/2;
String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major, Op. 67;
String Sextet No. 3 in G Major, Op. 36, w Boris Kroyt, viola; Anthony Pini, cello
String Quintet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 88, w Alfred Hobday, viola
String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, w Hans Mahlke, viola

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