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Nash Ensemble - Brahms String Quintets

MusicWeb 19.11.09

The Nash Ensemble continues their Brahms Survey on Onyx, after having already regaled us with the String Sextets and two Piano Quartets. Aided by a very present recorded sound, their bold excursions into some of Brahms’ most striking, but hardly most popular music - the two String Sextets opp.88 and 111 - are highly successful, perfectly pleasing additions to the generously filled catalog. But waiting for them, comparison wise, are, among others, the Raphael Ensemble’s seamlessly well played recordings. Along with recordings by the Hagen Quartet with Gérard Caussé (DG) and Leipzig String Quartet+ (MDG), those are at the top of my heap (MusicWeb International review here). They are glorious, with total precision, and most importantly: with lots of heart. The Guarneri Quartet with Zukerman - an on-demand re-release that stems from close cooperation between ArkivMusic and Sony/RCA - is a new, old contender as well. 

What the Nash Ensemble has that these others don’t, is a brazen approach to the music. While they offer op.88 with emboldened forward drive, the Raphael Ensemble’s approach is one of slightly greater refinement and sensitive elasticity. The Nash are also consistently, if marginally, faster than the Raphael Ensemble. In the opening movements of both quintets, the Nash-approach works very well. But in the op.88 Grave ed appassionato they introduce an unnecessarily hectic sense. In the op.111 Adagio the delicate balance and the more refined violins make the Raphael Ensemble a more pleasant listen. Explosive and restless as the Nash is, theirs is an ostentatious approach the Raphael does not choose … and yet the latter manage to be just as fiery in the closing movements. Direct comparison thus takes a little off this new recording’s edge. Then again, that’s not how one would ordinarily listen to these works. Their strong impression on its own immediately carries enough appeal to compel return to this interpretation. The acoustic is rich and with generous - not excessive - reverberation. 

Jens F. Laurson

BBC Music Magazine  November 2009 ****

With its glorious opening subject, Brahms's Op.88 String Quintet seems at first like one of his sunniest and sheerly lyrical works, but it is full of elegiac half-lights prompted by the act of memory.Even the apparently innocent and serenade -like central movement is a reworking of two early piano pieces Clara Schumann had played, and is deeply haunted with a sense of regret and loss. It is only fair to say that the Nash Ensemble players, in this splendid new disc, are well aware of the emotional complextities here- they are already implicit in the nervous, rather clipped tempo they adopt for the first movement's second subject.
One of the glories of their performances of both quintets is the fullness and the richness of sound, something Brahms clearly strove to cultivate in his scoring. Paul Watkins's heroic, thrusting statement of the cello theme at the outset of the op.111 quintet reminds us that this opening started as a sketch for a symphony, and the theme was probably originally intended for horns. The range of texture, both both virile and mystical, that Brahms conjures in this movement is astonishing, and I've seldom heard a performance that differentiates and brings them all out so well as this one. The subtle elegiac melancholia of the middle movements is superbly realised, with a wonderfully earthy vigour to the finale. For sheer expressiveness refinement in these two under-rated and under-performed scores the Nash players don't quite, for me, knock the Leipzig Quartet with second viuolist Hartmut Rohde off their perch, but this is a marvellous version, in superbly natural sound.

Calum MacDonald    

International Record Review  October 2009

...The sense of Brahms's late music coming full circle with a youthful passion and exuberance reminiscent of such post Schubertian early wonders such as the First Orchestral Serenade spills over into the G major Quintet. Here the Nash Ensemble send Brahms's potentially trenchant textures soaring skywards on  gentle warm-air currents of affectionate phrasing and captivating expresivo. the mastery of this performance is that whatever the supreme technical skill displayed by both composer and performers, the listener is above all drawn in by the music's captivating ebb and flow. A triumph.

Julian Haylock

The Daily Telegraph 22 August 2009 ***** Ivan Hewitt
These recordings prove that the Nash Ensemble, Britain's peerless chamber group, is in better shape than ever. I can't remember a keener musical pleasure in recent months than hearing violinists Marianne Thorsen and Malin Broman in the allegretto of the F major Quintet, as gracefully entwined as a pair of dancers on an ancient Greek vase. My other favourite moment is the finale of the G major, where the two viola players, Lawrence Power and Philip Dukes, add such subtle swoops to the melody you almost don't hear them. But really, it's all wonderful from beginning to end.
The Guardian 7August 2009 **** Andrew Clements
Composed eight years apart, Brahms's two String Quintets belong among his finest chamber music, yet they remain surprisingly little known outside the circle of chamber enthusiasts. Brahms employs the mozartean quintet lineup with two violas, and it's the viola playing that is the highlight of these performances by the Nash Ensemble regulars; Laurence Power and Philip Dukes provide a wonderfully rich and expressive core to the group's sound which gives it the perfect blend power and flexibility, as well as supplying the perfect pivot around which all the music's harmonic shifts can rotate. At times, though, the performances do seem to lack a bit of forthrightness, as if all the tonal subtlty was robbing the music of its fundamental robustness, especially in the long opening movements of both works. but the set of variations that telescopes both slow movement and scherzo into the centrepiece of Op88 and in the more regulation slow movement of Op111 all that refinement comes in exquisitely useful.   
The Independent 2 August 2009 'Outstanding'. Anna Picard
Uninspired by his sketches for a Fifth and Sixth Symphony, Brahms intended the G major Quintet to be his last work. A vibrant synthesis of Magyar snap,  Baroque figures and Bohemian lyricism, it is played like a miniature string symphony in this recording from the Nash Ensemble. There's a wonderful physicality their sound: the violins intenhsly sweet, the violas pungent, the single cello limber and long - legged. The Schubertian F major Quintet is a technical tour de force, again beautifully played.  
CD of the Week - London Observer  - 26 July 2009 - Fiona Maddocks
Brahms's two string quintets, No 1 in F and No 2 in G, were written eight years apart when the composer was at the peak of his creativity. They remain puzzlingly unpopular or, perhaps more accurately, not well known except among chamber music addicts, who rank them as desert island essentials. Each has a magnificent, extended opening movement, the Op 88 serene and eloquent, the later G major work thrusting and invigorating with its surging cello theme and excited, tremolando accompaniment. In both, Brahms adds a second viola to the standard string quartet, following Mozart's preference, rather than the second cello favoured by Schubert.
Here, the formidable Nash Ensemble has brought together two world-class viola players, soloists in their own right but also natural chamber musicians: Nash regular Lawrence Power and, playing on a 1696 Stradivarius lent to him by the Royal Academy of Music for this recording, Philip Dukes. Neither struggles to be heard, as too often is the case in this music, instead sounding lyrical, golden-toned and only slightly lighter voiced than a cello.
These quintets are at once about richness of texture, especially in the middle parts, and clarity of individual voices. The Nash achieves immaculate and transparent playing throughout. Violinists Marianne Thorsen and Malin Broman and cellist Paul Watkins step in and out of the limelight as this most democratic of musical combinations demands, but the violas are allowed to star. The complex harmonic layers never become heavy or clotted and the recorded sound balance, expertly engineered by Will Brown and produced by Andrew Keener, brings out every hushed pizzicato or syncopation.
Brahms spins these sophisticated works out of popular Viennese melody and gypsy rhythms and these players never lose sight of the music's earthy, Slavic origins. One of many highpoints is the central movement of Op 88, Grave ed appassionato, which weaves a stately sarabande and gavotte into a set of variations of yearning tenderness - Brahms at his finest, with glimpses of sunlight piercing the melancholy before the Allegro energico finale explodes into a virtuosic, homeward gallop. This is a superb performance: stylish, expansive, imaginative and exuberant.