Johannes Brahms’ Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Op. 34

Brahms-Piano QintetSony has taken the occasion of pianist Leon Fleisher’s eightieth birthday to re-release a number of his recordings of a wide range of music, which happily leads me back to some of my favorite territory with this disc, the music of Johannes Brahms, specifically The Piano Quintet in F Minor. We’ve run across the thematic material in the Piano Quintet before, in the two-piano treatment of the Sonata in F Minor, but here the character is somewhat different: that Brahmsian bigness that is somewhat muted in the Sonata is here given greater scope, and the feeling of a symphony orchestra lurking in the wings waiting to jump in is that much more prevalent.

The fluid lyricism that is so much a marker for Brahms is evident from the very beginning of this recording, even though it jumps quickly into that equally characteristic thunderous majesty that can so easily become ponderous. Not with this group> Fleisher and the Juilliard, masterful musicians all, manage to maintain the tension of the work as a driving force, not only in the stately opening, but as well in the more intimate sections, which take on a quality one rarely hears in interpretations of Brahms, although it’s there: these five superb musicians manage to convey the impression that this composer, noted for the conceptual scale of his works, that Olympian grandeur which can sometimes be overpowering, is sitting next to you, conversing quietly and intimately with you alone.

And that’s just in the first movement. The ensemble also creates a fullness to the middle movements that belies the fact that there are only five performers here, with Fleisher and the Juilliard so completely attuned to each other that the number of players becomes irrelevant. There is a limpid quality to the rendering of the Andante, a sweetness that avoids the saccharine coupled with a clarity that repeatedly brings a catch to the throat at the turn of a phrase, a heightened tension at the entry of a new voice. It’s about intensity and passion, qualities that are even more important in the quiet places than in the grand finales: they are there, but gently restrained, which makes them even more vivid. And somehow, no matter the quietness of the melodies, no matter the intimacy of the execution, the music remains huge: it’s mostly Brahms, of course, but full credit to the performers for recognizing it and bringing it to us, as they do in the Scherzo. Intensity, passion, majesty, momentum: those are the requirements for Brahms, and they are nowhere more apparent than here. (And let me add clarity, without which, nothing. The amazing thing is that the ensemble turns out a beautiful, unified sound and yet each maintains his own territory: the result is astonishing. And kudos to the Sony engineers for capturing it.)

And then they turn around, after the rousing conclusion of the Scherzo, and deliver an opening in the Finale that is pure heartbreak, beginning with a mere whisper of cello and violin, and as the rest of the ensemble enters, the pathos — and the tension — mount. The mood swings here are phenomenal, and all perfectly controlled in this recording.

It would be an obvious fib for me to claim that I don’t love this music — Brahms has been one of my passions from an early age, a composer whose music possesses that edge that I insist on, that combination of intensity, passion, and energy that makes for the best in whatever idiom the creator chooses. To have a recording by an ensemble that so perfectly understands his music, and not only understands but brings that sensitive and intelligent comprehension to us in apprehendible form, is one of the greatest treats I could have. This is one you can dive into until you are quite happily lost. It’s a chamber piece that has all the range of an orchestral work, rendered with a definitive combination of intimacy and power by a stellar group of musicians.

Personnel: Juilliard String Quartet: Robert Mann, Isidore Cohen, violins; Raphael Hillyer, viola; Claus Adam, cello; and Leon Fleisher, piano

(Sony BMG Musical Entertainment, 2008 {orig. released 1963])


Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there. You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.

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