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Brahms Piano QuintetBrahms Piano Quintet

Quartetto Italiano / Maurizio Pollini (piano)

DG Originals 474 839 2

Why, as the notes remind us, is the only recent (so excluding Richter / Borodin or Serkin /Busch) recording of this work to have made it to classic status? The answer lies in the exceptional music personalities of the protagonists – Pollini plays with his customary aloof precision, and is an ideally contrasted partner for the more emotional Italianos. The quartet in turn plays with supernaturally good ensemble, not simply in terms of being together, but, to use a piano analogy, by perfectly weighting the chords, so each part contributes exactly the right amount to the general sound picture.

This is an enormous work, the summit of the piano quintet repertoire, and one that is well-known to have had a difficult gestation. Earlier versions as a string quintet and a two piano sonata (the latter still exists and works well) were rejected by Brahms and Clara Schumann; the end result is big, and of the full of the divine discontent of the young romantic, as opposed to the mordant resignation of the late chamber works.

The first movement on this recording should be required listening for any piano chamber ensemble; the development in particular is miraculously crafted, where even Pollini displays a very human sensitivity. He is less convincing in the second movement; the lack of any tenderness or vulnerability in the chorale-like theme emphasises the work’s bigness, rather than its many facets. Here, the string players explore a multitude of emotions, with the pianist not bothering to connect with them.

On the other hand, Pollini’s immaculate octave technique makes the succeeding scherzo especially powerful; both writing and performance set the heart racing. The success of the performance in this movement assists in elevating our opinion of the work, to being, as some have suggested, the ‘crown’ of Brahms’ chamber music. Only clarinettists would disagree.

Even after the work was finished, Clara had reservations about the finale. It is clearly written in more disjointed a style; it has the same problems as, say, the finale to Tchiakovsky’s Fifth symphony, and not even these players make it sound as convincing as the rest of the piece.

In comparison, most modern accounts (listen, for example, to the venerable and well respected Haas / Berlin Phil quartet, always correct and neat, but without anything like the same drama, adrenaline and voltage) emphasise Brahms’ good writing at the expense of the overwhelming passion the work in fact contains.

DG have always known they could get away with selling Pollini’s recordings on very short discs. And in fact, the original CD is still available at full price, as well as the re-issue, on an improved transfer, at mid-price. This, at a shade over 45 minutes, is no exception, but worth 45 hours of ordinary chamber playing.

Ying Chang