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Brahms: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. New Zealand String Quartet. Naxos CD
The group, consisting of Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman (violins), Gillian Ansell (viola) and Rolf Gjelsten (cello), have the distinction of being in a quartet celebrating its 29th season this year, and this factor is obviously of great benefit to their excellent performances of this genre of classical music.
The Naxos label has previously recorded them in quartets by Hugo Wolf, Berg, Bartok, and Mendelssohn, and other works.
This CD is the first of a series projected to include Brahms’ third and final string quartet together with his string quintets and the clarinet quintet.
The two quartets on this disc (both Op.51) were written when Brahms was 40, in 1873. They are among the most complex of 19th-century works in this form.
Brahms was very conscious of following in the footsteps of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert in developing the string quartet as an intense and often demanding genre for musicians and listeners.
Quartet No.1, written in C minor, has a tragic feel. Both outer movements are intense and difficult with passionate themes, harmonic changes and moment of lyricism.
The second movement, titled "Romanze" is slow and reminiscent of late Beethoven, while the third is a slow minuet including an intriguing trio section surprise with competing instruments.
Quartet No.2 in A minor is also melancholy but a more interesting work, with a lyrical Viennese quality and its faster finale paying homage to Hungarian and gypsy music.
All Brahms’ moods are relished by the musicians.
Verdict: Treat for chamber music fans.