Johannes Brahms and his music have a reputation for being somewhat meaty, and so an English Sunday afternoon seems an appropriate time to hear two of his chamber works side by side. Served up by the Takács Quartet joined by violist Lawrence Power, this concert provided the St George’s Bristol audience with plenty to get their teeth into; Sunday roasts were not the only things being digested, as these world-renowned players performed Brahms’ two String Quintets, Opp. 88 and 111.

Takács Quartet © Ellen Appel
Takács Quartet
© Ellen Appel

The quintet took a while to settle in to the F major quintet, which began a touch insecurely both in terms of intonation and ensemble playing. Brahms’ configuration of two violins, two violas and cello favours the tenor and bass ranges somewhat, and at this early stage in proceedings I felt that first violinist Edward Dusinberre’s isolated high passages lacked in security of tone and tuning. The music certainly didn’t feel comfortable, and it wasn’t until the deep, singing passages in Geraldine Walther’s first viola part that it began to feel more at ease. In fact, Walther’s viola playing was a highlight not only of this movement, but of the concert overall. It really is lovely to hear works which bring the wonderful richness of this underappreciated (and, let’s face it, over-ridiculed) instrument to the fore, and Brahms certainly does so in both of his string quintets. The insecurity of the opening section was underlined and overruled when the same material was taken up again at the recapitulation, which was arrived at after a particularly boisterous passage over a pedal bass. From this springboard the music was played with renewed energy, and the movement ended exploiting the ensemble’s warm, mid-range sonorities.

This now-familiar soundworld was instantly transformed by a substantial change in texture at the beginning of the second movement, Grave ed appassionato. András Fejér’s beautiful high cello solo, supported by the low violas, heralded a much more intense, introspective rondo movement, despite the contrast provided by a lilting violin duet over a pizzicato foundation and a lively, exuberant but fleeting section based on a chromatic motif passed around the quintet. This middle movement came to a calm, soothing conclusion, in which the Takács showed their true mastery, playing with an evenness of tone and a perfection of voicing that was just exquisite. The Allegro energico begins with a fughetta in which a rapid, iterative theme is passed around before being submerged beneath the melodic surface, to appear throughout the movement, whether in fragmented form or delicately underlying the more expansive first violin melody. Towards the conclusion, Brahms uses this first theme to create a vast potential energy, as the instruments gravitate towards one another, assembling in unison octaves and rushing towards the pieces joyous end.

The G major quintet launches immediately into a wonderfully full-bodied, sonorous texture out of which the cello rises, proclaiming a passionate, quickly ascending opening theme. The vitality of the ensemble was arresting, here, and Brahms’ music bubbled and cascaded vibrantly, stirred by Fejér’s unleashed energy. Once this turbulent outpouring had succumbed somewhat, the violas were again favoured, this time working as a pair: now duetting beautifully, now bouncing off one another in an energetic arpeggio passage quickly transferred to violin 1. A sparse texture heralds a daring shift in key for a contemplative passage that contrasts the passion of the opening, in which an ever-ascending, slow melodic phrase is passed between violin and viola. The pair of violas feature again in the Adagio, which they open over a light pizzicato cello. This in turn plays an important role when the music opens out into an expansive section in three, the metre of which I only grasped properly after a few moments of delightful temporal ambiguity, thanks to the plucked cello’s re-entry into the texture. The musical playfulness of this intentional uncertainty did not last long, though; Walther’s viola sang out once more in a cadenza-like passage, before an introspective coda drew the predominantly troubled movement to a tranquil close. The third movement, a waltz, was much lighter in content and texture, and far more refined than the Vivace movement to come. Indeed, gambolling off-beat accents and some relished rambunctious playing brought out a far more rustic, folk-dance element to this final movement. This czardas style was notched up a gear, both in terms of tonality and intensity, in a frantic coda, heralded by a playfully phoney interrupted cadence that spurred the players on through their final exuberant bars.

This afternoon concert may not have been a gourmet feast, but it certainly was delicious. The audience showed its appreciation for such fare in the hearty tones of the content and well-fed, without needing a lie-down and a snooze to digest – at least, not immediately, anyway.

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