Brahms – Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major Op. 26

English Symphony Orchestra

Kenneth Woods, conductor

Nimbus Records, 2018

Tracklist and more details

There are two things to consider when approaching the present recording of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 2: orchestration and performance. In fact, this is not the recording of the original version, written by the German composer in 1861 and premiered in 1863 by Brahms and the Hellmesberger Quartet, but it is the version orchestrated by Kenneth Woods and premiered by the English Symphony Orchestra on 21 November 2017.

Woods ’s Orchestration of Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 2

The orchestration of a “classical” work is always a delicate question. There is always the risk to betray the composer’s intentions and to dissatisfy the aficionados who know the work by heart and revere its creator. In this case, the precedent of Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Piano Quartet No. 1 is useful to justify the orchestration of the No. 2, although that precedent is sometimes disputable in its outcome. Woods’s orchestration, anyway, is well-balanced and proportionate. He aims to be as respectful as possible of Brahms’s style and this concern brings to an independent composition that is however closely linked to the original work.

In every respect, this is a fine achievement, which deserves a place as a classical next to the original version. It preserves Brahms’s Romantic trait and, without wandering off the path of the original composition, it adds many evocative elements to which only an orchestra can give prominence and that an excellent performance as the one recorded here further enhances.

The Performance of Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 2

This performance is nothing short of lucidity and emotional honesty. Everything here is heartfelt and considered and Woods does justice to his orchestration. The English Symphony Orchestra plays with stylishness and its sound is bright, perfectly captured by the engineering. Its colours are shimmering and precious and in several passages different instruments (especially woodwinds) play embellishments of commendable beauty. The playing is smooth, remarkable especially for the white hot sound of the brasses and for the silkiness of the strings.

Under Woods’s baton, the music flows with brilliance and in a lean way – spontaneously, in short. At the same time, it has that kind of elegance that is not merely decorative, but that opens the path to the expression of deeper thoughts and feelings. There is always the impression that every phrase does not exhaust what there is to say, but it seems rather an invitation to look further. Among the others, the third movement is particularly varied and incredibly rich.

Woods’s assurance and decision do not diminish but rather perfect the articulation of the ebb and flow of music. The softness of the orchestra in some passages – especially at the beginning of the second movement, where its softness is enchanting – is coloured by an incredible range of emotional subtlety, while more agitated passages are valuable for their precision and crisp articulation.

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