Fresh Insights From An Old Master In Brahms Quintet

Review by: Jed Distler

Cover-Brahms-Pressler

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 10

Menahem Pressler was 91 when he recorded the Brahms Piano Quintet for the first time in his long and distinguished career in 2014. He’s clearly up to the task. Admittedly, tempos are slower than usual for the most part, and you won’t find the kind of dynamism and power in loud tuttis commonly served up by younger keyboard hotshots–although Pressler suddenly sheds decades in the finale’s exultant coda, matching the Pacifica Quartet’s urgent sweep note for note. There’s purpose and meaning in every phrase, every gesture, and every nuance on Pressler’s part.

Listen to the tension that the pianist generates in the soft unison rising scales prior to the first-movement exposition repeat, hear the haunting sense of mystery and flexibility in the Scherzo’s Trio, and notice how Pressler’s tonal shadings enhance the conversational lilt in the fourth movement’s main theme. Having so finely tuned and attentive an ensemble as the Pacifica Quartet on hand doesn’t hurt, of course! If the Hough/Takács and Andsnes/Artemis versions score for fluency, assurance, and grandeur, Pressler’s insights are priceless, and we’d be poorer without them.

A 2016 recording of the Schumann A minor Quartet Op. 41 No. 1 fills out the disc. The Pacifica members make a compelling case for this inspired yet arguably sprawling work. They draw out the first movement’s introduction, giving little clue about the fierce Allegro around the corner and the sharply drawn dynamic contrasts with which they’ll characterize the music.

Ferocity also defines the ensemble’s hair-trigger articulation in the “Mendelssohn on steroids” Scherzo. The Presto sounds faster than it actually transpires, due to the players’ sophisticated balancing of lines and ever-so-discreet italicizations of harmonic felicities; rarely do you hear such fusion of forward drive and contrapuntal clarity as the Pacifica Quartet delivers. It’s an absorbing performance, notwithstanding my preference for leaner and edgier versions by the Zehetmair and Eroica Quartets.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Brahms: Hough/Takács Quartet (Hyperion), Schumann: Zehetmair Quartet (ECM)


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