Brahms: String Quartet No. 1 op. 51-1, String Quintet No. 2 op. 111. Belcea Quartet, Thomas Kakuska (second viola). EMI Classics 5 57661 2 (2004), barcode 724355766120, EMI Classics 5 57662 2 (2004) (“copy controlled”), barcode 724355766229
Recorded July 2003 (Quartet), September 2003 (Quintet) at Potton Hall, Suffolk
Reissued EMI Classics “Encore” 2 35711 2 (2009), barcode 5099923571129:
Reissued EMI Classics “Nipper” Collection 50999 2 35712 2 (2009), barcode 5099923571228:
Exceptional readings for this unusual pairing
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 12 August 2006
The Belcea Quartet is a young and upcoming British string quartet, and this CD proves that their growing reputation is not just hype, as what they give us here are magnificent readings of these two works, not usually paired on record.
Though a relatively underrated work, Brahms’ second string quintet is one of the composer’s most glorious compositions, of symphonic grandeur and arch-bent lyricism, replete with glorious melodies. Here joined by Thomas Kakuska, the violist of the famed Alban Berg Quartet, the Belcea Quartet has all the required power, richness of texture, homogenous ensemble and perfect pitch. Their first movement, “Allegro no troppo, ma con brio”, taken at a rather spacious tempo but full of vigour, has breathtaking intensity. Their adagio does not linger but its lyricism is all the more harrowing as it is not heart-on-sleeve nor lachrymose, and the last pages have a dramatic power seldom heard since the recording by the Amadeus Quartet in the mid-60s. In the 3rd movement (“poco Allegretto”), they do not do the mistake, often encountered with others (as the Budapest Quartet on Sony, the Ludwig Quartet on Naxos, Isaac Stern and partners on Sony among others) of adopting a sluggish and wailing tempo that would turn the movement into a second adagio; on the contrary, theirs is fast and agitated, which doesn’t preclude charm in the middle section. Their finale has wonderful gusto. This is a reading equal to the best, which include, to mention only those that have recorded only the 2nd quintet, the Alban Berg Quartet on EMI (coupled with the clarinet quintet in a not so good reading with Sabine Meyer) and the Melos Quartet with Gérard Caussé on Harmonia Mundi (paired with a good reading of the clarinet quintet with Michel Portal).
The same qualities are at play in the first string quartet: symphonic power and high-strung drama in the two outer movements (both written “Allegro), arch-bent lyricism in the 2nd movement “Romanze-poco Adagio” as well as in the 3rd movement “Allegretto molto moderato e comodo”, magnificently sustained by the viola’s profound chant and a fleeting tempo that again avoids turning the movement it into a second adagio.
This is an indispensable addition to any serious Brahms discography, and makes one hope that the Belceas will record Brahms’ remaining string quartets, quintets and sextets.