Brahms: String Quartets Op. 51 No. 1, Op. 67

Takács Quartet (Hyperion CDA67552)

20 November 2008 4.5 stars

BrahmsBrahms' first and third quartets, the C minor and the Bb major Op. 51 No. 1 and Op.67 respectively, make an ideal pairing. The first, dramatic, tense and expansive as it is, provides excellent rhetorical balance when set against the more diversionary, bucolic strains of the third.

Yet they share much: each is rigorously constructed along the lines of a unified discourse of material and mood, and both likewise carry out the sort of creative reforms of common-practice writing that are so endemic in Brahms. There can be few ensembles as well placed to draw out the distinct and complementary charms of these works than the Takács Quartet, a group who excel in giving intelligent and dramatic readings of the central string quartet repertoire. The immediacy and skill of their performances here suggest little need for altering that opinion.

The tense creative energy of the first movement of the C minor work is immediately to the fore in the Takács' performance. The searching rising figure of the first theme – the germ for the thematic material of the whole quartet – begins as slightly inhibited, yet as the modulations are worked through and the dynamic expanded, the violin ascends to a fulgent imperfect cadence. The chugging viola and cello accompaniment, rudimentary but effective in its way, likewise opens out over the course of this phrase to an early peak. The following idea, derived unmistakably from the first by inversion, is in a more lyrical vein, and the yearning emotion each member of the quartet brings to the swapping around of this figure in its initial sentence is stunning. The players then move fluidly into a play of voices and personality where the first subject group is developed, the theme spread around the ensemble, and the dialectic of materials brought to an overwhelming point of intensity.

The phrasal asymmetries, the hectic modulations, and the inexorable principle of development contained within this first movement are all given with a real sense of play, and a feeling for fluency and command. These are allied with a sharp awareness of the structural detail of the writing. The development section is here a site of great excitement. The impression of strong classical drama in the quartet's performance peaks at the highly unusual re-entry of the main theme, before the home key has been re-established, at the start of the recapitulation.

The slow movement contains one of Brahms' most elegiac textures, with the gentle accompaniment figure pre-empting the similarly yearning main melody. The movement has a variation feel, with much of the material again coming from the players' initial figures. The quartet manages to gracefully mediate between the cantabile stillness of the thematic material, and the developing-variation feel of the writing. Their tone, as a unit particularly but also individually, is warm and rich throughout. The hesitancy of the scherzo is well brought out-the swaying theme is always effective, and the gradation of texture into and out of phrases is skilfully realised. The trio – tongue in cheek as it is – is a pleasant diversion from the surrounding material, and the plucked writing for viola is a nice contrast of colour, as is the bariolage writing for the second violin in that trio. In the finale the theme from (most explicitly) the slow movement is invigorated with an unexpected intensity – all four players move as one through a passionate series of gestures designed to signal once again the sort of dialectical thrust of the first movement. It is a more compressed movement however, and the stampede toward the resolute conclusion is given with an awesome and overpowering energy by the quartet.  

Brahms' third quartet, the Op. 67 in Bb major, begins the disc in style, calling to mind immediately the sort of classical poise and thrift of Mozart. Once again the material is traditional, yet it is infused with a freshness of tonal strategy, of phrase structure, of rhythmic accent and profile, and of developmental technique. For instance, the swift first movement is dominated by a play of accent and punctuation within the syntax of each subject group, and also by the clever rhythmic game Brahms plays in the relation of his two themes, the first in a dashing 6/8, and the second in a boisterous 2/4. He moves between these two metres by employing a shifting pattern of beats, most noticeable when Brahms uses hemiola to suggest rhythmic modulation. The two time signatures signify a pattern of stability and unrest within the overall shape of the movement, a common technique for Brahms (as used for instance in the fifth of the Op. 76 set). They are combined toward the end of the movement, in concert with the resolution of the tonal tension, in a passage of great moment. The quartet communicates a deep appreciation of this dialectic of stability and movement within the music, and they imbue the overall arc with a great deal of symphonic nuance, alongside it must be said an intimacy and lightness appropriate to the material.

The other movements are equally fresh. The angular and introspective viola line of the third for example gives way to more expansive interludes of great depth. The muted accompanists do well to keep in sympathy with the sometimes thin, sometimes full, but always effective tone of the viola of Geraldine Walther. The busy invention of the variation form in the finale suggests the inevitability, through manipulation of motivic shape and of dynamics, of the rapprochement between the opening theme of the work and the variation theme, that takes place in the closing stages. The Takács players render all of this with great skill, and utmost sensitivity to the internal logic of the music. Each player is alive always to the moment to moment drama of the writing, where each detail develops the argument in new and subtler ways. They collectively display in their performance the sort of flair for mutual interaction and alliance that continually bears fruit in the shape of highly unified patterns of phrasing, graceful delicacies of tone, and transcendent force of poetry.  

By Stephen Graham