Brahms: Piano Quartets 1-3

Renaud Capuçon, Gautier Capuçon, Gérard Caussé, Nicholas Angelich (Virgin 5193102)

11 October 2008 3 stars

Brahms QuartetsThe brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon have been at the heart of several excellent recordings of Brahms on Virgin over the last couple of years and this disc of the piano quartets reunites them Nicholas Angelich, with whom they recorded the same composer's trios. Viola player Gérard Caussé completes the picture.

Yet although the playing on this double CD set is predictably virtuosic and seductive, I found myself more often frustrated than satisfied by their approach. Only in the C minor quartet do the players really rise to the dramatic challenges of Brahms' music, the first two quartets are given performances too tentative and self-regarding to be fully involving.

Virgin's recording is airy and detailed and the playing is full of yearning passion and delicacy, but in the G minor quartet, in particular, this is only half the story. The Scherzo fails to take off and lacks playfulness while the Andante lacks the requisite lyrical strength and despite refreshing clarity of ensemble in the extraordinary martial middle section, I missed that feeling of the music bursting out of its generic confines that pushed Schoenberg to orchestrate it in the 1920s. Although the opening Allegro receives a performance with a certain power, it tends more strongly towards the lyrical, the strings consistently favouring long, luxurious bowing. The playing in the alla zingarese final movement is uniformly excellent but there's a too little bite from the strings which means a lack of the foot-stomping gipsy fire that the music cries out for. The phrasing is too impeccable, too studiedly rehearsed and the whole thing remains civilised, polite and strangely uninvolving. Technically much of it is breathtaking, but I longed for Angelich to start enjoying his oom-pahs, or the string players to throw caution to the wind and dig their bows in with a bit more abandon, for any of them to not care about making an ugly sound. This happens a little after the piano's fiery cadenza, the coda's build-up is exciting and the rush to the finish-line thrilling, but it's all a bit too late.

The group's approach is a little more successful in the A major quartet, and they produce many moments of meltingly seductive playing in a work that sees the young Brahms (these are all products of the composer's late twenties, even if the C minor quartet wasn't realised until a decade later) at his most melodic and lyrical. However, the tendency for the strings to sink into their notes rather than give them much attack, or swell emotionally in the phrases, is still a concern. This style of performance acts as a veil over the work, undermining its immediacy in the outer movements, even if the results in the glorious Poco adagio are often extremely beautiful. The many lyrical moments in the opening Allegro non troppo, with the strings singing against Angelich's trickling accompaniments, are also difficult not to enjoy. This movement, at over sixteen minutes in length, though, demands greater contrast and a stronger grip for its structure not to loosen and become diffuse.

It also means the soft focus of the Poco adagio, beautifully played though of course it is, does not provide enough of a contrast. In addition, the lyrical outburst about four and a half minutes in is frustratingly tentative – and a quick comparison with the no-nonsense approach we get from Ax, Stern, Ma and Laredo on Sony, or even Domus on Virgin, shows what we're missing. The Scherzo has a bit more weight to it but there's still a worrying feeling of holding back, and often Angelich is at fault: some might complain about pianists overpowering the texture but there are times – such as in his arpeggio flourishes before the trio section – when his reluctance to assert himself over the often treacly playing of his colleagues makes for a strange listening experience.

The C minor tonality of the third quartet at last induces a bit of straightforward playing against which the lyricism and delicacy provides contrast; here the balance that strikes me as missing in the other works is achieved in what is a very fine performance. In the opening Allegro non troppo there are moments where Brahms demands directness from his performers and here Angelich whips up a proper storm in his double octave outbursts, elsewhere he employs his natural restraint with care. There's still a tendency from the strings to produce a sound that's broad and luxurious, betraying a reluctance to sacrifice tonal beauty to directness of attack, but it's less troublesome. Angelich kicks off the Scherzo with lively urgency, matched by the other players. And finally, given the context, I was able to enjoy contrast provided by the glorious playing in the Andante, Gautier Capuçon's heart-breaking opening cello solo in particular. As in the early movements, the Finale finds the group happening upon a more direct manner of performance. It's not without its subtle inflections – the whole passage running from just after two minutes in, with the Renaud Capuçon's solo against Angelich's carefully shaded accompaniment, is a case in point – but these are infinitely more persuasive in contrast to the power elsewhere in the movement.

So, in sum, a frustrating release. Only in the third quartet do these players hit upon a balance that reflects their wonderful musicianship while capturing the essence of Brahms' music. To my ears, they misjudge the first two works and produce as a result readings that, for all their glorious playing, fatally lack dramatic impetus and passion.

By Hugo Shirley