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Gramophone Awards Shortlist 2016

Brahms String Quartets – No 1, Op 51 No 1; No 3, Op 67 Artemis Quartet Erato F 2564 61266-3 (68’ • DDD)

Compelling reactivity: Phillips and Guy recording Beethoven’s cello sonatas and variations serenade in Mahler’s Seventh, and they make more of the Tristan references later on, but it’s the Belceas who bring the third movement closer to the symphony’s spectral Scherzo. Fewer notes are audible, and the Trio is less than truly ‘ecstatic’, but that may all be part of their plan. If this is music to have an affair by, the Belceas’ finale probes unsparingly at the guilt and emptiness of its inevitable, messy end; the Emersons leave you longing for what might have been. After they have played the Largo desolato neat, Renée Fleming joins them to offer the option of the ‘hidden’ Baudelaire setting which makes aching, dreadful sense of Berg’s autobiographical narrative in the suite.

On the Belceas’ disc, the Lyric Suite fidgets at the centre of a Second Viennese School primer. The Langsamer Satz is slow only according to the clock, nervous and more dissonant than usual, in expressive terms – there are no wrong notes – with an acute sense of timing as, at the movement’s halfway stage (4’40”), Webern looks back on himself and this voluptuous dream of C major with mingled nostalgia and regret. In the Five Movements, Op 5, the Belceas’ muted, breathless approach is no less effective than the extrovert technical accomplishment and timbral extremes of the LaSalle Quartet, and in the slow second and fourth movements, when they contrive to play on the very edge of audibility, more to the point. Their Verklärte Nacht bucks the trend of recent slow and solemn performances – the Achilles heel of the orchestration being that it draws the piece closer to Metamorphosen than Erwartung – and is fitted closely to Dehmel’s lascivious storyline.

The Emersons’ coupling is more unconventional: a sonnet cycle of six Elizabeth Barrett Browning settings (in Rilke’s translation) made by Egon Wellesz in 1938 in an opulent 12-tone (rather than atonal) style, something of an ex post facto reconstruction of the missing link between Book of the Hanging Gardens (completed in 1909) and Lulu (1935). Wellesz (with Berg, a fellow pupil of Schoenberg) brings the cycle to an uneasy rest somewhere closer to Strauss’s ‘Befreit’ or one of his selfcommuning heroines, which suits Renée Fleming down to her fingertips. She is woven between the lines of the original quartet version, whereas Regina Klepper stands proud of the DSO Berlin in what appears to be a later amplification of the cycle for string orchestra (Capriccio, A/04). The Zeisl encore is another rarity but little more than luscious overkill in the circumstances. An Emerson/Fleming line‑up for Schoenberg’s Second Quartet – now, that would be something. Peter Quantrill

From the quick vibrato of the opening of the First Quartet to the viola’s pure tone that leads to the second subject just 10 bars later, the Artemis give us a Brahms of and for our time, inevitably informed by their work on Bartók and Ligeti just as much as on late Beethoven. Even the time taken over that second theme, the first violin’s expansive freedom over his cadenza at the end of the exposition and the suspense hanging over their tentative passage into the development are ‘natural’ expressive devices that have nonetheless swung into and out of fashion ever since Brahms didn’t write them down but left them up to the good taste and sense of his musicians.

The Artemis have both that taste and sense in abundance, and we could count ourselves very lucky to hear nowadays a performance of the C minor Symphony that matched this recording for its urgency and discretion of response to a work that swings no less wildly between fretful pacing, outright grief and elation. Much of both inner movements is played under the breath, which the engineers capture admirably, with just enough of the musicians’ own breath to let us know they are there in the room with us.

The Third Quartet makes a good, contrasting coupling, throwing us forwards to a period when Brahms was looking back, to a spirit of Classical detachment but also covert disarray (having composed the Haydn Variations but two summers previously), realised fully in this open-hearted account, as much in the first movement’s quizzical exchanges as the little sighs and bumps that shape the Minuet and its pair of Trios (more outstanding viola-playing from the late Friedemann Weigle here and in the finale’s first variation). The Gringolts Quartet (Orchid, 8/14) are tonally drier and more literal observers of the movement’s initial agitato marking: a closer and more fruitful comparison would be with the LaSalle Quartet (DG, 1/82), another new-music ensemble who could play these pieces as though they were written yesterday. Peter Quantrill

Bruckner String Quartet. String Quinteta. Intermezzoa Fitzwilliam Quartet; aJames Boyd va Linn F CKD402 (76’ • DDD)


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