Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Brahms and Schumann Revelation from The Alexander Qt and Joyce Yang

Brahms Schumann Piano Quintets
Joyce Yang, Piano/Alexander String Quartet
Foghorn Classics FCL2014

First off, I was most impressed with this recording of two towering masterpieces of the Quintet form, the Schumann Quintet for piano & Strings in E-Flat Major, Op. 44 and the Brahms Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Op. 34 performed by the terrific Alexander Quartet with Joyce Yang piano. In a nutshell, these are gutsy, lively, exciting and maybe even a bit edgy performances. That statement merits a bit of full disclosure on my part. I generally am not a huge fan of the music of Brahms or Schumann yet I fully realize their genius and popularity. My “thing” is 20th and 21st century music, so I (and maybe others so inclined) relate to and enjoy these very visceral, very “modern” performances.

However... these are not dry, hard or cold readings; on the contrary, there is plenty of Romantic warmth and passion. Both quintets are products of young composers and were seen as adventurous, exuberant works at their debuts. The Alexander Quartet and Yang simply allow the composers' youthful energy to shine through.

As the notes to the recording state “The piano quintet is an unusual form. It combines two completely different sonorities: the percussive sound of the piano and the sustained, resonant sound of the string quartet.” Thus, a recording of a piano quintet requires first rate sonics, detailed, out front and bright yet balanced. This Judy Sherman produced disc more than meets that requirement. Although bright and close, the piano rarely comes across too forward or overwhelming. The strings are solid and never mushy and the viola's darker color is always distinct from the other strings.

Brahms composed his only Piano Quintet between 1862 and 1864 when he was around 30 years old. As did several of his works, it had a protracted birth, starting as a sting quintet, then arranged for two pianos and finally recast in its definitive form in 1864.

The first movement of this massive work is a musical adventure unto itself. From the dramatic, arresting opening measures, musical ideas, melodic lines, intriguing harmonic progressions and pulsing cross rhythms flow forth. The forces here bring out all of the music's complexity but always drives the movement forward, never letting the details bog everything down.

The tender “Andante, poco Adagio” leans more to the andante side than the adagio yet still maintains an almost Schubertian lilt. Listen to the gently rocking flow of the very beginning, the recording captures the gentle interplay of the piano and strings. Worth the price of the disc itself.

The C minor scherzo is a revelatory study in musical drama. Moving forward like an elemental force of nature, Yang and the Alexanders pounce into this darkly brooding movement. The devilish syncopated march is muscular and tight, emerging from the murky, funereal opening. The lyrical trio is but a quick respite from the drama before all plunges back into the fray. Totally mesmerizing playing.

The ensemble deftly negotiates its way through the episodic rondo finale. Tender at times, powerful when needed ending with a satisfyingly rushing coda. A fitting a powerful end to a most recommended performance.

Unlike Brahms, the 32 year old Schumann took only a few weeks to complete his Piano Quintet in the fall of 1842, the crowning achievement of his celebrated “Chamber Music Year”.

The energetic and virtuosic “Allegro brillante” opening movement is certainly “brillante” in the hands of Yang and the Alexanders; intelligently paced, sparkling and technically perfect. The deftly contrasted second theme is dolce but never cloying.

The second movement is often referred to as a “funeral march” but Schumann only alludes to a funereal mode, calling the movement “In modo d'una Marcia”. If it is a funeral march, the Yang/Alexander quintet make it a most stumblingly macabre one, likely as Schumann intended.

If one can not imagine a missile streaking towards the heavens while listening to the opening moments of the scherzo, then there is something wrong with you. The ensemble launches the ascending theme with power, grace and firecracker intensity, yet brings welcome contrast to the lyrical trios. Just simply some of the most exciting chamber playing on record.

Whereas the Brahms ends in a bit of a disappointing finale, the Schumann concludes with a dramatic double fugue including the main theme of the first movement. Every entrance and melodic line is precise and clear never bogging down in an unintelligible mess.

San Francisco based Foghorn Classics provides concise but intelligent notes including bios on the artists and a listing of their instrument makers to complete this attractive package. Yang and the Alexander Quartet rouse these grand old gentlemen from their “La-Z-Boys” and make them feel young again to everyone's great benefit. Most recommended.

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