top of page

Review:Brahms’ Quintets Naxos – graceful, beautifully-lit readings by the NZSQ with Maria Lambros

New Zealand String Quartet, with Maria Lambros (viola), presents BRAHMS – String Quintets – No.1 in F Major, Op.88 / No/2 in G Major, Op.111 Helene Pohl (leader) / Monique Lapins (violin) / Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (cello) (with Maria Lambros – viola)

Naxos CD 8.573455

Playing and getting to know this disc recorded in Canada as long ago as 2016 has been, for me, a salutary experience on a couple of counts – firstly it’s been a recrimination of sorts, one that’s asked me in no uncertain tones of disapproval, why I hadn’t sought out and explored this venture by one of our most renowned and treasured musical ensembles before now! A different kind of reproof concerns the actual music, which I didn’t know nearly as well as I ought to have, other facets of the world being too much with me, to the detriment of my appreciation of the works on the present CD.

Continuing in this vein and juicily “flavouring” my present litany of self-deprecation with the admission that I’ve never really “got” Brahms’ chamber music that’s minus a piano would bring shock and horror into the argument as well as coals of condemnation down upon my head from dyed-in-the-wool Brahmsians, with whom I’ve skirmished before! So, it’s with surprise and delight that I’ve here started to listen to these works afresh, and seemingly begun to appreciate what their composer was doing, thanks to the luminously persuasive way of the players of the New Zealand String Quartet and their collaborator, Maria Lambros, with this music!

For whatever reason, the recording presents the Second (in G Major, Op.111) of the composer’s two String Quintets first up on the disc. Brahms originally thought this would be his last major chamber work, but then met clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld the following year (1891), and no less than four more chamber pieces came from his pen, inspired by the playing of a musician Brahms called “the nightingale of the orchestra”. Nevertheless, the Quintet displays a similar autumnal feeling in places to the clarinet works that followed, in between the invigorating bursts of energy – in fact the music’s vigorous opening immediately brought to my mind the Elgar of the Second Symphony, the trajectories having a similar “striding” aspect, and the exultations displaying more than a hint of the determined and ripely forthright about them, a “not to be thwarted” feel in the way the music unfolds. Somewhat Elgarian, too, is the way the music adroitly and seamlessly reveals its composer’s more lyrical inclinations as a kind of “inner core” – and the NZSQ players’ (including the second violist’s) beautifully-judged way with realising each of these contrasting moods and their symbiotic relationship is one of the things which gave me such pleasure throughout this opening movement’s journey.

With the following Adagio, we are enveloped in a gentle melancholy, whose potential for sorrow is softened by the music’s blood-pulsing flow and, in places, exquisite gentleness – there are outbursts of more heart-on-sleeve emotion in places, but always the music ultimately “takes care” of the listener’s concerns, the occasional shivers of loneliness placed in a wider context of stoic resignation, leaving us moved but not bereft. How gently and richly the playing takes us along this path, the viola leading the way, slightly “rushing” the slide upwards in the music’s second phrase (but giving it more “room” in its final appearance towards the movement’s end), and otherwise enabling us to fully enjoy the music’s songful outpourings. And the sequences when the night’s stars are gently revealed to us are exquisitely voiced by the ensemble, making the