It's with rather dull inevitability that this disc from Stephen Hough and the Takács Quartet is every bit as good as one would expect. A forthright, clearly defined and stunningly well played performance of Brahms' F minor Piano Quintet is coupled with the same composer's String Quartet in A minor, Op.51 No.2 in what we can only hope is an indication that the Takács will go on to record the remaining two quartets.
This has to be one of the most intelligently played and controlled performance of the quintet I've heard. It might be less dramatic than some and there might be those who miss the spectacle of the string players trying to assert themselves against a pianist's dominant personality, but for me this is chamber music playing of the highest order. Helped by Hyperion's exemplary engineering, Hough fits into the texture seamlessly; the piano's lines, especially in the opening movement, mix easily with those of the strings and its percussive power is used to underpin the general argument, rather than dominate it.
There is nothing routine about this performance. The staccato chords which Brahms makes such a feature of in the first movement development are all carefully placed, the furious repeated notes that bring the scherzo to a close are fiery but never out of control. It's part and parcel of what makes the Takács who they are, the quartet now consistently named the best in the world. Obviously there are no technical hurdles for them but their sound is always alive; Edward Dusinberre, the first violin, leads from the front with his limpid, endlessly flexible playing.
'Cellist András Fejér in particular is outstanding, listen for example to how he phrases the finale's theme, urgent yet playful, and it's always a joy to hear Geraldine Walter's viola sing through the texture. It's a performance that highlights the classical heritage and taut discipline of Brahms's writing. Contrapuntal lines are played off against one another to produce tension but none of the conflict which more overtly romantic performances can produce and the several fugato passages are particularly successful. That's not to say, though, that it wants for drama – without ever losing control, the players can unleash power with the best of them (listen, for example, to the build-up in the first movement's development and the big writing in the scherzo).
The results are predictably every bit as fine for the Quartet Op.52 No.2. And as several commentators wrote when the first disc by the Takács came out on Hyperion (a very well received couple of Schubert quartets), it's great news for the British label to have on their books this great quartet which now, after another change of personal (Walter has only been on board for two years) seems to have found the perfect balance, in temprament and timbre, between its players. It's good news for the quartet too, to have a label behind them that has always had an unparalleled commitment to chamber music.
The quartet on the disc is essentially a more lyrical work than the quintet and Dusinberre sings out his various melodic lines in the first movement with wonderful sweetness, and he's matched by his colleagues (listen to the wistful viola counterpoint starting at 1'15, for example). The quietly reflective Andante moderato gives us yet another opportunity to marvel at the detail and subtlety of the Takács' playing. The contrasts in the central section between the anguished minor outbursts and the meltingly beautiful return to lyricism are beautifully captured. The lightness they bring to the formally adventurous third movement and the urgency and virtuosity in the finale are no less impressive.
Although the Takács lack some of the tonal refulgence of, say, the Alban Bergs, they more than make up for this with playing which marries lyricism and athleticism; they have a seriousness of purpose but always with a glint in their collective eye. And their collaboration with Stephen Hough is hugely impressive. All lovers of chamber music, Brahms and music in general should snap this disc up and I hope we don't have too long to wait before their next release.
By Hugo Shirley