The Strad Issue: January 2012
Description: Mixed results on a disc of familiar Brahms in rarer guises
Musicians: Zebra Trio, Krysia Osostowicz (violin) James Boyd (viola) Richard Lester (cello)
For Brahms enthusiasts, the major draw of this release will be Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen’s reconstruction of the String Quintet in F minor – the ‘two-cello’ quintet of 1862 which arrived in its final form, the well-loved Piano Quintet, by way of a two-piano version. If nothing else, it’s a challenge to objective listening. At first you miss the lack of contrast between piano and strings: the sparkling attack of the piano in the familiar version aerates the texture, and the contrast between theme and accompaniment seems crucial in the second-movement Andante, un poco adagio. Eventually the ear becomes reattuned, but, even so, there’s a raw, unvarnished quality to the playing here that doesn’t help. It’s exacerbated by the recording, which is quite close and unblended, with a lack of overall bloom.
The two-viola string quintet version of the late Clarinet Quintet op.115 is better known but still a rarity. In his excellent booklet notes, Malcolm MacDonald posits that the extra viola’s ‘darker, huskier timbre… imparts a deeper intimacy [compared with the original clarinet version] that completely nullifies the risk of sentimentality’. This is certainly true of the Adagio, which gathers a cohesive tonal intensity, though the players still deliver a sense of quietly unfolding nostalgia, to pulse-lowering effect. Almost a disc of two halves then, but one worth experiencing.