Brahms’s three Piano Quartets are not exactly terra incognita, but this Meridian set has some special claims on our attention: several editions of the music have been consulted, the string-intruments are strung with gut, as they would have been in Brahms’s day, and John Thwaites uses three period pianos from the Gert Hecher Collection in Vienna – in opus number order, a Streicher, a Blüthner and an Ehrbar.
Reading the booklet notes, including an essay on the music and various historical matters by Thwaites, I would like to be able to nod sagely and say, for instance: “Ah yes, the Ehrbar ... so much better than a modern piano for this music.” But what I know about vintage pianos you could put in your eye, and I am not sure I could tell these three instruments apart in a blindfold test. What I do appreciate is that their mechanism does sometimes work in the music’s favour – I recall, for instance, that Rudolf Serkin always used to insist on having a piano with a genuine una corda pedal for these works.
Before undertaking the recordings, the players held a four-day symposium during February 2018 at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire – which provided funds for the project – with half-a-dozen experts. The latest thinking on historical performance practice, as related to Brahms’s chamber music, was discussed and the Primrose Piano Quartet used an 1850s Wilhelm Wieck piano, having previously had access to an 1890s’ Blüthner in Hampshire and an Erard from the former Finchcocks Collection. All of this means that Thwaites had to accustom and adjust himself to six different pianos. Even taking into account that pianists do this kind of thing on a regular basis, one has to feel for him. But perhaps this is the place to say that his playing on this releases is magisterial. There is a long line of British Brahms pianists stretching back a good century and a quarter: one thinks of Tovey, Walker, Bauer, Hobday, Hess, Borwick (a broken link in the chain because he died young leaving no records), Davies, Keys, Solomon, Curzon, Smith, Lill... (In his note, Thwaites writes admiringly of another, Olive Bloom, who recorded the C-minor Piano Quartet with members of the Spencer Dyke Quartet for the NGS in 1927.) Just on the evidence of his playing here, Thwaites deserves to join their number.
The musicians begin with the C-minor Quartet, which originated in the mid-1850s with the other two but was held back while Brahms revised it and was not published until 1875. A number of commentators have speculated that the work was intimately bound up with Brahms’s feelings for Clara Schumann, and have noted her name spelt out in German notation (in a transposed version of Robert Schumann’s Clara motif). Despite all the talk of historic pianos, it is the string tone that catches the ear, the unmistakable timbre of gut which lends a mellowness to the sound. The Ehrbar piano, which also has a mellow sonority, adds to this impression, making a nice thunk with each of its first two chords; and the acoustic plays its part – it is pleasantly resonant but perhaps confines the upper frequencies a little.The tutti sound has a sort of nutty quality and the heroic moments still emerge sounding heroic – it is all a matter of scale. The gut strings impose their own parameters but make lovely tones: rather than the beautifully groomed string sound we have been led to expect from modern groups, this is something a little grainier. I could wish the viola had a more individual, more plangent tone. The musicians catch the troubled air of the Scherzo and the cello solo in the Andante flows pleasingly: this movement can easily get too slow. The Finale evolves naturally, working up considerable power.
I had already noted a degree of flexibility of tempo in the Allegro of the G-minor Quartet (the one Schoenberg orchestrated) when I read in the notes that it was intentional. The two main themes are strongly delineated, one against the other, and there is no attempt to impose a more-or-less even pulse on the movement. The ‘Intermezzo’ has a pleasant lilt, with delightful muted string sonority and beautifully delicate playing from Thwaites. The musicians adopt a fine flowing tempo for the hymn-like melody in the Andante con moto and the various sections follow their own inner logic. In the ‘Rondo alla Zingarese’, Thwaites is up against such names as Serkin, Gilels and Ax but does not turn a hair, producing some very fine playing. The grand episodes have their grandeur, the players slow down quite a lot for the lyrical episodes, the strings employ some splendid portamento and the piano cadenza is terrific.
In the A-major Quartet (recently scored by Kenneth Woods, link below), the piano is fully involved from the start and there is a good feeling of give and take. A lot of the Allegro non troppo is in Brahms’s heroic vein but there are also quieter moments and the players observe a good range of dynamics. They keep the Poco adagio, with its muted strings, on the move, maintaining its lyrical impulse until the big outburst by the piano, which is very different from the similar effect in the slow movement of Schubert’s A-major Piano Sonata (D959) and is easily assimilated. In the piano’s figuration in this movement you hear the clarity that Thwaites mentions in connection with the Blüthner. The quieter mood returns and finally the big string theme takes over, before the quiet ending – how rich this Poco adagio is, justifying Daniel Gregory Mason’s statement that it is Brahms’s finest chamber music movement so far. The Scherzo has a questioning quality, well expressed here, and reverses the usual order of things, in that the Trio is more heroic than its surrounds – Thwaites rises to the demands of this Trio and he and his colleagues manage its dancing second theme very well, playing its quiet coda atmospherically as they hand over to the return of the Scherzo, which ends tempestuously. The Finale has a Hungarian fringe, mixing the valiant and the lyrical, and in Thwaites’s hands the Blüthner produces quite a bell-like sonority at times as the players move towards the quiet passage that presages the strong ending. This is a long work, almost fifty minutes, but the musicians’ concentration never flags.
To sum up, these performances are unlike any others of Brahms’s Piano Quartets that have come my way. If they are not quite in the league of the Busch-Serkin interpretations of the first two, my benchmarks for those particular works, they exude an air of friendship which is attractive. They feature piano-playing of the highest class, on interesting instruments, and string-playing that does justice to the music. They will happily sit on your shelves as alternatives to your favourite high-powered, modern-instrument versions.