Historic New Recordings of Brahms’ Piano Quartets
The culmination of many performances, and years of research into historically informed performance practice and period instruments, the Primrose Piano Quartet are delighted with this 2 CD set of Brahms’ magnificent works for the ensemble.
Recorded on location in Vienna – using a different nineteenth century piano for each quartet, and gut strings similar to those in use at the time – the ensemble felt inspired to let their hair down and give performances which are creative, imaginative and new.
The CD was launched at Steinway Hall in London in February 2019 and has received the highest praise in a five star review in Musical Opinion Quarterly (July – september 2019):
“This new set is much more than passing interest and in many ways goes to the top of the recommended list… It is a life-enhancing pleasure to renew acquaintance with these imperishable masterpieces in this way, and one must give this issue the highest recommendation.” Robert Matthew-Walker
It was highlighted on BBC Radio 3’s Record Review (March 2019) and described by Andrew McGregor:
“This weeks best new best releases… Brahms’ three piano quartets with a difference. …. three excellent performances of the Brahms’ quartets. I’ve enjoyed them a great deal..” (full transcript here)
And a 5 star notice in Classical Source, where Tully Potter writes:
“performances unlike any others of Brahms’s Piano Quartets that have come my way… 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.”
See CD reviews.
Composed during the middle years of the 19th century, the piano quartets of Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) display the composer’s symphonic mastery in their scope of Romantic expression and range of development, and owe a debt of inspiration to personal and performing partnerships with the Schumann family and Hungarian violinists, Eduard Reményi and Joseph Joachim.
“Prior to the recording, we undertook a lot of research into the latest historically informed performance practice which is reflected in our interpretations”, explained violinist, Susanne Stanzeleit. “Our own teachers had close and direct links back to Brahms and the playing tradition of the time so we felt very at home with the process. We used three stunning pianos dating from the mid-19th century from the Gert Hecher collection in Vienna and moved them to the famous Ehrbar Hall, where Brahms himself often performed, for the recording. To complement the sound of the pianos the three strings players changed their set ups to closely resemble the string sound of the period, using a combination of uncovered and covered gut strings.”
Pianist John Thwaites recalls: “I chose a Blüthner, an Ehrbar and a Streicher – the latter identical to the instrument given to Brahms in 1868. We know Brahms visited the Ehrbar Hall in the 1870’s and 80’s to try his symphonies and piano concertos on two pianos.”
The Primrose Piano Quartet has previously recorded Romantic repertoire to great acclaim with their award-winning recordings for the Meridian label including works by Schubert, Fauré and Richard Strauss. Alongside their performances of the major repertoire, they have revived a number of remarkable and unjustly neglected 20th century English piano quartets, as well as giving a platform to contemporary composers, including Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies, Sally Beamish, John Casken and Anthony Payne, whose works have been written for and premièred by them.
Primrose in conversation with Melanie Spanswick
CD Booklet Articles:
John Thwaites for Pianist Magazine:
IN FULLBBC Radio 3 Record Review, Andrew McGregor, 9th March 2019. “ Now here’s a recording of the three Brahms Piano Quartets with a difference. It’s from the Primrose Piano Quartet. They’ve done as much as they can to make their performances as historically informed as possible, researching manuscripts and editions, listening to the earliest recordings from the 1920’s, right through to their choice of instruments and the string players’ use of a mix of gut and metal-wound strings, limited vibrato, some expressive slides as well, and pianist John Thwaites plays three different instruments of the kind Brahms would have known. The difference it makes is immediately obvious in the first chords of the C minor Quartet Op. 60. The first movement of Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor Op. 60 played by the Primrose Quartet: violinist Susanne Stanzeleit; viola player Dorothea Vogel; cellist Andrew Fuller and pianist John Thwaites, who’s playing three different period pianos for these performances from a Viennese collection. You just heard the sound of a piano by Friedrich Ehrbar, the most modern Viennese piano in the 1870’s. When Brahms performed the piano duet version of his fourth symphony he played one of these very instruments in the company’s Ehrbar Concert Hall in Vienna, which is where this new recording was made. They’ve made every effort they can to recapture as much of the sound Brahms would have had in his ears and once you’ve dialed in the different balance between the instruments and the individual sounds of the three period pianos you realise that you’re also listening to three excellent performances of the Brahms Quartets. I’ve enjoyed them a great deal. You’ll find them on two CDs from the Meridian Label and you get excellent informative notes by John Thwaites as part of the package. That’s not the last fine chamber music you’ll hear this morning…” classicalsource.com – Tully Potter *****
“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.”Fanfare Magazine issue 42:6 and Classical CD Reviews, Gavin Dixon
“Period instrument recordings are often accused, or at least suspected, of academic rather than musical motivations. But the two need not be mutually exclusive, as this studiously academic but also vibrantly musical collection demonstrates. The three Brahms piano quartets are here presented in period performances—the first ever it seems for Nos. 2 and 3—using three different pianos of the era, and recorded in a venue familiar to Brahms himself, the Ehrbar Saal in Vienna. The recording grew out of a symposium at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on period performance practice. The Conservatoire also sponsored the release, and so, as expected, the documentation is impeccable, with detailed discussion on the works, the performance philosophy, and the pianos, by John Thwaites, who is the Quartet’s pianist, and Gerd Hecher. The three pianos are an 1870 Streicher (Quartet No. 1), an 1853 Blüthner (No. 2), and an 1878 Ehrbar (No. 3). Of the three, only the Ehrbar is cross-strung, and it sounds the most modern. The Blüthner is the most wooly sounding, while the Streicher has a nimble action and clear tone that makes it the most attractive and distinctive, at least to my ear. But soft, round sounds are the order of the day, and the gut strings of the other three players—Susanne Stanzeleit, violin; Dorothea Vogel, viola; Andrew Fuller, cello—give an ensemble sound that is fully sympathetic to each piano in turn. The gut strings are particularly apparent in Brahms’s regular use of percussive pizzicato patterns, here given a warm bronzed quality, but without reducing the rhythmic drive. The liner note discusses, as a potential source for performance practice, a recording of the Third Quartet made in 1927 by the Spencer Dyke Quartet for the National Geographic Society. It comes up early on in a discussion about editions: The Simrock leaves the sustain pedal down indefinitely after the opening piano octaves, while Hans Gál’s later Breitkopf and Härtel edition releases the pedal at bars 2 and 4, apparently in line with performance practice in Vienna at that time, 1926–7. In fact, this new recording follows Gál, where the Spencer Dyke goes along with Simrock. The moral seems to be, as John Thwaites writes, “… to generalise too much about the Performance Practice of Brahms’s day is to miss one of the most essential characteristics of that time – its plurality and variety.” Another contentious issue is portamento, in which the Spencer Dyke Quartet are apparently indulgent. The First Piano Quartet appeared on a period performance recording in 2016, from the Australian ensemble Ironwood (ABC 481 4686). They take portamento to extremes, and the results are uncomfortably queezy, whatever the historical veracity. The Primrose Quartet apply portamento too, but it’s more reserved, as Thwaites writes, “… an unashamedly modern players’ perspective on the refined portamenti of Arnold Rosé, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1881 (and rumoured to be an earlier owner of Susanne Stanzeleit’s Guadagnini violin).” Piano arpeggiation—a subject of much discussion in 19th-century period practice—is rare on the NGS recording, as it is here. More interestingly, the parts occasionally move out of alignment in that early recording, a practice that the Primrose Quartet aims to follow. So we often hear a piano chord slightly before the sustained bloom of the string trio, but the effect is made more palatable by the generally mellow attack from each of the pianos. The Ehrbar Saal gives a warm resonance to the sound, and perhaps more body to the pianos than they might otherwise achieve. In line with its scholarly credentials, the recording is made in what is described as “Natural Sound.” It isn’t clear exactly what that means—some sort of binaural approach perhaps?—but the result is a marked separation of the string trio in the stereo array, with the cello dominating the right speaker. The pianos are well recorded though, without any of the mechanics impinging on the sound.”