Quartetto Energie Nove Plays Brahms

BRAHMS: String Quintets Nos. 1 & 2 / Quartetto Energie Nove; Vladimir Mendelssohn, vla / Dynamic CDS7883

Having praised the Quartetto Energie Nove’s previous releases of the string quartets of Janáček and Prokofiev, I was really looking forward to this release of the Brahms String Quintets, and once again they did not disappoint me.

For several years now, my standard in these works has been the excellent recording by the Alexander String Quartet with guest violist Toby Appel. I still like that recording very much for its warmth and amplitude; it is very “rich”-sounding Brahms, every string player in the group sounds as if he is running his bow over strings made of gold. Quartetto Energie Nove’s playing is almost the antithesis of this: bright and lean, like the difference between a very German string quintet and one from Italy or Russia, and their dynamics accents are all the more telling because they slightly swell and “enlarge” the sound when those moments come.

Does that mean that I have a preference for one over the other? Not really. It’s just a different way of listening to Brahms, like comparing the Fourth Symphony as conducted by Carlos Kleiber to the same symphony conducted by Weingartner or Toscanini. But, as someone raised on string quartet and symphonic recordings with a bright profile, I have to admit that this new recording satisfies me better because I hear more of the music on it. The leaner sound allows one to hear each individual strand of the quintet as it plays without the interference of too much richness (or too much reverb, which is present on the Alexander recording but not on this one). With its more Germanic sound, the Alexander Quartet’s performances may be more stylistically authentic, but Quartetto Energie Nove is, to my ears, livelier and more interesting. It’s a matter of taste and degree to which you accept this very different approach, but keep in mind that young Bronislaw Huberman’s bright, edgy, sometimes “raw” violin sound absolutely thrilled Brahms when he heard him play his Violin Concerto for that very reason. Also remember that Brahms, as a young man, played piano in the whorehouses along the dockside in Leipzig and adored Gypsy violinists.

Ah, but there is a tradeoff, and that is in the slow movements. Here, although Energie Nove plays with a nice legato, they don’t come close to Alexander’s burnished tone. Is this enough for me to dismiss this new recording? No, not really. The difference is simply in the sound of the instruments, not necessarily in the musical style, and I would no more expect Quartetto Energie Nove to sound plush in the slow movements than to expect the Alexander Quartet to play with a bright, lean sound. Yet I will say that, by and large, the Alexander Quartet’s approach represents more of an old-school approach whereas Energie Nove represents the general style of more modern (post-1990) string quartets…but of course, what goes around comes around. In the 1920s, such string quartets as the Capet and Amar, not to mention the early Budapest String Quartet, played with very bright, lean timbres and generally very fast tempi.

There is also a matter of the degree of vibrato used. The Alexander recording displays a fairly rich vibrato while Energie Nove plays with a faster, tighter one.

The second quintet, a later and even more complex work than the first, goes much the same way, except that here we have four movements instead of three. The five strings here bring out so much more detail that the difference is almost startling; what comes across as a solid but warm sound on the Alexander performance emerges here with almost 3D clarity. And there is no question that the Quartetto Energie Nove lives up to its name; there is energy pulsing through each and every note in these performances.

I definitely give this CD two thumbs up. These are really great performances.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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