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Brahms String Quartets

post #1 of 18
Thread Starter 
As a long time lover of Brahm's music in general I've accumulated quite a number of different recordings of his music of the years. For various reasons I found most of them unsatisfying for one reason or another. I believe the heart of the problem is the paradox and enigma of Brahms' music. On the one hand it is seemingly very straightforward and impeccably crafted from a traditional classical forms standpoint. On the other hand, there is the expanded (and again, seemingly straightforward) passionate intensity of early Romanticism, and finally, there is the modern aspects - odd time signatures, use of "cells" that recur through the music, often in unexpected places or with a melancholy or desolate quality that borders on modern isolation and angst. Add to this the fact that he revised much of his music later in life, which may or may not give it an "autumnal" quality, and it's a paradox indeed!

Most performances I've heard through the years tend to fall into a couple of different interpretive categories. They either emphasize the passionate Romantic side, or the wistful "autumnal" aspect, or some try to go against the grain and play Brahms in a genial, pastoral manner. Within these broader interpretive approaches, some will pay more attention to structure than others, but the structure and construction standpoint seems to vary randomly with each of these approaches.

Almost no one pays much attention to the modernist aspects of Brahms. This has lead to his perceived position as a good composer that does not quite measure up to the giants that came directly before and directly after in his musical universe, ie Beethoven and Mahler. Brahms seems to occupy a middle ground between these 2, never quite "measuring up" to their achievements. On a more personal note, I have never felt this way about Brahms, and in fact I've always felt Brahms' music was greater than most performances conveyed. This lead to me enjoying and appreciating his music immensely, but also left me with a vague dissatisfaction with almost all performances of it, particularly so with the chamber music.

I am happy to say that one set of performances I recently acquired does live up to my expectations and I'm ecstatic that I have been able to hear it. It's the Emerson Quartet's performance of his 3 String Quartets, plus the very substantial bonus of his Piano Quintet, where they are joined by one of the great Brahms pianists, Leon Fleisher. Luckily, the quintet lives up to the same level of greatness as the performances of the string quartets, and for most of the same reasons.

I remember seeing this set on sale and wondering why I'd not seen more press/marketing around it, considering the Emerson's are one of DG's main sellers, and Fleisher's recent comeback to recording has been much celebrated. This release almost seemed to "slip in the back door", instead of being announced with great fanfare, markedly in contrast to the Emerson's recordings of Bartok, Beethoven, and Shostakovich. I believe it goes to the fact that many in classical music don't consider Brahms on quite the same level as these others, and most other performances bear this out. But these performances are revelatory! I figured when I say them they might displace my previous favorite set (the Alban Berg on Teldec), who also have a somewhat modern take on the SQ's. But this is soooo much better, the playing is spectacular, and truly captures almost all aspects of his work - modernism, structure, recurring motif's and musical cells, gentleness, passion, it's all there.

I love about this set that each and every instrument has it's own clear and separate voice. Many groups try to achieve a "blend" to their sound, a unison of playing and timbre that gives the sense of "one player, multiple instruments", but the members of the Emerson quartet maintain separate voices and it is of great service to the music. The "cells" and recurring musical ideas are much clearer now. Many performances tend to favor one instrument at a time, with the others providing a bit more background role, or alternately they will have all the instruments sounding as "unison" at all times, obscuring the specific musical lines for each individual instrument. With the Emersons, you get clear and equal presentation for each voice and it's a beautiful thing to hear. Other performances sound like brahms is almost rambling, going through one idea after another with little or no connection between them. It ends up sounding like a concise presentation of musical ideas but little connecting them into a musical whole. But it's there, just perhaps you hear it first time presented in unison by all instruments, buy maybe next time around it's only on the cello or second violin, maybe dynamics inverted, maybe in form of a variation of original them, brahms does this thing all over the place, but it's just not audible on most recordings. It is here.

Anyway, I could go on much more about this set and why it is my definitive set of any Brahms recording (chamber or not), but you'll hear much more by checking it out yourself. Highly Recommended!!!!
post #2 of 18
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tyson View Post

Almost no one pays much attention to the modernist aspects of Brahms. This has lead to his perceived position as a good composer that does not quite measure up to the giants that came directly before and directly after in his musical universe, ie Beethoven and Mahler. Brahms seems to occupy a middle ground...
You have got to be kidding, right? For at least 80 years music appreciation books and such refer to the Three B's: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. He has always been regarded as one of Mt. Olympuses greatest composers. He may have been concious of being compared to Beethoven, but no composer I know of was more self-aware of his own greatness than Brahms. Even while alive he was highly and widely regarded as one of the greatest living composers: Mahler sure couldn't make that claim. And Gustav made some disparaging remarks about Brahms (as did Tchaikovsky). But most conductors, musicologists, composers, performers, audiences etc loved Brahms from the get-go. It is true that in perhaps the last 30 years, Mahler has replaced Brahms as a favorite for audiences and record buyers. Maybe Brahms sounds too stuffy and old-fashioned right now. But Brahms performed well, still makes a stunning impact on listeners, and in the long run, probably will outlast Mahler. I happen to love both composers very, very much and can't imagine not having either. And when it comes down to the bottom line, I must admit Brahms is the greater composer. Mahler the more colorful.

As to your cd review, I might just have to check these out. I don't have the Emersons and you make them sound very tempting.
post #3 of 18
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tyson View Post
Anyway, I could go on much more about this set and why it is my definitive set of any Brahms recording (chamber or not), but you'll hear much more by checking it out yourself. Highly Recommended!!!!
Have you compared the Emerson set to the New Budapest set, which I like very much.

But in general, Brahms' quintets are more enjoyable than his quartets to many people IMO, seeming a bit more spontaneous.

I can recommend the Raphael Ensemble Brahms string quintets highly.

Still, one of my very favorite classical pieces ever happens to be Brahms Violin Sonatas. Simple yet sublime; yup, that's what I like.
post #4 of 18
Thread Starter 
It's true that some composers and theoreticians have given brahms praise for some aspects that I mention, many performances on record do not reflect this, which is really too bad. Of the ones I know, the Eschenbach/Amadeus do to an extent, as do the Capucon trio's. The New Budapest quartet is unfortunately not one of the better performances on record, not compared to the Alban Berg's, and certainly not compared to the Emersons.
post #5 of 18
Nice post, Tyson. Brahms is my favorite, so I'll have to find time to check out the Emersons. To date, I've found myself going back most often to the old Cleveland Qt. for the quartets and the Amadeus for the quintets. My most unfavorite is the Julliard on Sony CD, but that might be a problem with the harsh thin sound of the recording.
post #6 of 18
Thanks, always good to see classical music recommendations.
post #7 of 18
Tyson
Do you also like the Emerson/EMI box set of Beethoven quartets?
post #8 of 18
Thread Starter 
You mean the Emerson/DG set? Yes I do, very much. A very "modernist" take on those quartets, not exactly traditional, but challenging and interesting.
post #9 of 18

Hungarian String Quartet

Tyson,

If you get a chance, listen to the Hungarian Quartet's Brahms. The box set (vinyl only of course) is EMI 2C 165-10735-7 - probably hard to fine, but beautifully recorded, excellent performances. The bonus in this set is the Clarinet Quintet with David Glazer - wonderful recording. By the way, if you run across their Beethoven (Grand Prix du Disque) on Angel, or their Bartók on DG, they are all well worth owning. Their ensemble playing was remarkable in comparison to most of their contemporaries, and their collective musicianship was exceptional. They never achieved much notoriety in the U.S., which is truly a shame.

I love the Takacs Quartet, but find the Hungarians even more compelling in most of their (common) recorded repertory. They are, of course, part of the same tradition. My best all time live listening experience was a Takacs all-Beethoven concert about three years ago - Op. 132 was the last piece on the program - absolutely transcendent.

Cheers,
Larry
post #10 of 18
Thread Starter 
I'd point to how quickly this thread ended up archived 5 pages back as evidence for my point that Brahms simply isn't appreciated by most people at the levels Beethoven and Mahler are.
post #11 of 18
How true, Tyson. And lots of boards have loooong threads on Mahler and Bruckner especially.

I have yet to hear the Emerson recordings, though I'll be seeing them live this season and one of the B quartets is on the program
post #12 of 18
Tyson do you by any chance have the complete set of Brahms quartets, quintets and sextets by the Amadeus Quartet? If you do are there any sound issues? BTW I head the Emerson version and I do like it. Might end up getting it, plus Bartok's (sorry for bringing him up, but i just like him too much) string quartets (Takacs version of course).
post #13 of 18
Quote:
Originally Posted by Facade19 View Post
Tyson do you by any chance have the complete set of Brahms quartets, quintets and sextets by the Amadeus Quartet? If you do are there any sound issues? BTW I head the Emerson version and I do like it. Might end up getting it, plus Bartok's (sorry for bringing him up, but i just like him too much) string quartets (Takacs version of course).
The Emerson's for Brahms is quite good, although I personally prefer the Alban Berg.

Emerson's Bartok String Quartets is a must have. Absolutely incredible.
post #14 of 18
Tyson, I just found this thread. I have been a fan of the Emersons' Brahms for months now. I definitely think this is the best set ever made of the Quartets.........But the Piano Quintet which is far more often recorded........

is the GREATEST chamber performance I own of any piece.
post #15 of 18
Couldn't agree more OP. Got this recording a week ago and it is fantastic. SQ is great and the performance is incredible.
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