Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Brahms Piano Quartet no. 2, Clarinet Trio, Nash Ensemble ONYX 4045

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Trio in A minor Op.114 [24:36]
Piano Quartet No.2 in A Op.26 [49:01]
The Nash Ensemble
Ian Brown – piano
Richard Hosford – clarinet
Marianne Thorsen – violin
Lawrence Power – viola
Paul Watkins – cello
Recorded at the Menuhin Hall, Menuhin School, Cobham, Surrey, 13, 15, 16 July 2009 Stereo DDD
Onyx Classics ONYX 4045 [73:46]

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This is an impressive addition to the Nash Ensemble’s growing catalogue of Brahms recordings. And as with their recording of the String Sextets, and of the First and Third Piano Quartets, a real sense of collective endeavour permeates these performances. You really get the impression that the works are being played as chamber music: passionate without being histrionic, precisely coordinated but with freely expressive solo lines, and balanced to give each player equal prominence.

The scoring of the Clarinet Trio – clarinet, cello, piano – helps to delineate each of the voices, and in this work it is to the credit of the players and the sound engineers alike that so much coherency is achieved in the ensemble. All three players come across with a warm yet focussed tone. The democracy of the Nash Ensemble’s approach is demonstrated by the fact that the clarinet never seems to dominate as a solo instrument. Again, this may be in part due to the sound engineering and the way that the upper register of the piano has a roundness of tone that perfectly complements the clarinet’s sound. Dynamic and tempo markings are observed but never exaggerated, the poco F at the opening for example, is interpreted as an indication of clarity of tone and phrasing rather than an actual loud dynamic, thereby retaining a sense of mystery for this slow introduction.

The louder passages in the opening movements of both works demonstrate the extraordinary facility the Nash Ensemble has for presenting chamber music as chamber music. Brahms cranks up the tension, and the volume, but the players never let the music’s intimacy suffer. All the passion is there, but there is never any danger excess. Surprise dynamic jumps in the finale of the Clarinet Trio are another case in point; each sF jumps out of the texture, but never to the extent of disrupting the music’s lyrical continuity.

Fine balance and close communication between the players also characterise the Nash Ensemble’s reading of the Second Piano Quartet. So there is never any danger of the piano competing with the strings. As in the Clarinet Trio, the roundness of the piano tone really helps it to integrate into the texture of the other instruments. And yet despite that integration, the sound of each of the instruments is always clearly audible. I’m particularly impressed by the sound of the cello in the mix. It’s not a particularly bottom-heavy balance, but the cello really sings.

Perhaps these performances are a little too sophisticated? Is there enough rustic charm in the scherzos? Enough drama to engage in the Allegros? Well, from where I’m sitting they gauge it just right. True enough, I would probably be just as content with a reading that was a little more boisterous, provided it retained the same balance and ensemble. But, as I say, this is chamber music played as chamber music. Intimacy and immediacy are the guiding principles here, from the communication between the players to the clarity and warmth of the sound engineering. Highly recommended.

Gavin Dixon 2010

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