The Strad Issue: January 2014
Description: An outstanding set performed entirely from memory
Musicians: Chiara Quartet, Roger Tapping (viola)
Composer: Brahms

Prior to op.51, Brahms had made at least 20 attempts (all destroyed) to compose a string quartet worthy of the Viennese tradition that he held so dear. What finally emerged was a pair of works whose polyphonic density, structural concision and thematic stream-of-consciousness (what Schoenberg called ‘developing variation’) had a profound impact on the Second Viennese School. If the modernist LaSalle Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon) keeps the music’s emotional temperature on a relatively cool setting, the Chiara, playing entirely from memory, recalls the passion and intensity of the Amadeus (also DG) in full cry. In the Chiara players’ skilled hands, the brooding opening Allegro of the C minor Quartet takes on an almost choreographic sense of emotional narrative, fuelled by a soloistic collective voice that places the emphasis firmly on cantabile espressivo rather than knife-edge vertical precision.

The A minor Quartet (op.51 no.2) is if anything more impregnable – even the accompanying material is ingeniously derived from the main pool of thematic ideas. Here again the Chiara’s medium-paced vibrato and heart-tugging portamentos intensify the music’s emotional impact, making the Quasi menuetto third movement feel closer than usual to the Mendelssohn archetype.

The gently cushioned warmth and sonic weight of the recording prove especially conducive to the outdoor, Haydnesque ‘twinkle in the eye’ of the predominately sunny B flat major Quartet and the joyous Second Quintet, in which the Chiara is joined by violist Roger Tapping. Brahms had originally intended the latter as his creative swansong and played like this, with infectious charm, exultant phrasing and nostalgic affection, it is easy to hear why. An outstanding set.

Clip: Brahms String Quartet No. 1 In C minor, op.51 no.1 mvt I: Allegro