ALEXANDER STRING QUARTET
JOYCE YANG, PIANO
Pictures on Silence — Best of 2014!
“The talented Alexanders and brilliant Joyce Yang take on two towers of 19th century chamber music, the Brahms Piano Quintet in f Op 34 and the Schumann Piano Quintet in Eb op 44. Frankly any recording that elicits a positive comment about Brahms from me is worth noting. No stodgy, elegant (read dull and technical) readings here, these are gutsy, lively, exciting and maybe even a bit edgy performances. Excellent production, including concise yet informative notes.”
—Don Clark, Pictures on Silence (Best of 2014, Dec. 2014)
Audiophile Audition — 5 star review!
“...simply sensational — rarely have I had that kind of leap-out-of-your-seat experience with a work so tried and true, but this one did it, and the sound is exquisite as well, though standard stereo. …Joyce Yang’s wild and wooly pianism add to the multiple delights found here. …the Alexander brings such a reckless abandon to the work, like it was just written and never seen before, that makes their performance so infectiously delicious. It’s impossible to exhaust the interpretative possibilities with these two works on any one recording anyway, but the Alexander has really upped the ante with this one. Don’t miss it!”
— Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition (Dec. 2015, FCL 2014 Brahms Schumann Piano Quintets)
A MusicWeb International
Recording of the Year:
“I felt then that I had found my perfect recording of these two favourite works. While it remains enjoyable, Joyce Yang and the Alexanders have completely trumped it. Quite how they have managed to find new things to say about such standard repertoire is quite beyond me, but there is something to marvel at around every corner.”
— David Barker, Music Web International (Mar. 2014, FCL 2014 Brahms Schumann Piano Quintets)
“I’m not often as bowled over by core repertoire recordings as I was by this one. After handing off the album to a friend, the second opinion came back positive too: “The Alexanders really have a great feel for Brahms,” he said, and then he borrowed all the other ASQ albums I had.” — Brian Reinhart, Music Web International (Mar. 2014, FCL 2014 Brahms Schumann Piano Quintets)
“The Alexander’s Schumann is indeed breathtaking, as much for its sweeping lyricism and emotional responsiveness to the music’s impassioned Romantic gestures, as for its technical precision, ensemble balance, and tonal bloom.... The Alexander’s Schumann is simply wonderful, taking pride of place among all others with which I’m familiar.
“The Brahms Quintet, too, is special. The hair-on-fire Scherzo, in particular, is a guided tour through Brahms’s rhythmic arsenal.... But I have to say that the Alexander’s performance is super-charged and electrifyingly exciting. Needless to say, the ensemble’s terrific reading of Brahms’s Piano Quintet is not limited to just the Scherzo. This new recording of the Schumann and Brahms piano quintets will be a serious contender for my year-end Want List.” — Jerry Dubins, Fanfare Magazine (Mar. 2014,
FCL 2014 Brahms Schumann Piano Quintets)
Excerpts from liner notes by Eric Bromberger:
The piano quintet is an unusual form. It combines two completely different sonorities: the percussive sound of the piano and the sustained, resonant sound of the string quartet. Both piano and string quartet have magnificent literatures of their own, and combining them offers composers a range of new sounds and new possibilities, but that fusion also brings challenges. This recording offers the piano quintets of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, two of the earliest — and noblest — examples of the form. Over the next century these would be followed by the great quintets of Franck, Dvořák, and Shostakovich. Certain other piano quintets — those of Elgar, Dohnányi, and Schnittke — hover on the edge of the repertory; individual listeners will have favorites of their own. In fairness, it should be noted that Mozart may have beaten them all to it, having specified that three of his piano concertos — K.411– 413 — could be performed “a quattro”: that is, with the piano accompanied by string quartet. (This form of those works, however, retains the concertante identity of a concerto rather than becoming true chamber music.) It was Schumann and Brahms who defined the piano quintet as we know it today, and the shadow of these two works falls across every subsequent composer who sets out to write in this form. It may come as no surprise to learn that Clara Schumann was intimately involved in the creation of both of them.
SCHUMANN Quintet for Piano and Strings
in E-flat Major, Opus 44
Robert Schumann established himself as a composer with his pieces for piano and his songs. Then in 1841, the year after his marriage to the young Clara Wieck, Schumann wrote for orchestra, and during the winter of 1842 he began to think about chamber music. Clara was gone on a month-long concert tour to Copenhagen in April of that year; left behind in Leipzig, the always-fragile Schumann suffered an anxiety attack in her absence (he took refuge, in his words, in “beer and champagne”). But he also used the spring of that year to study the quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. After recognizing what those masters had achieved in their quartets, Schumann felt even more assaulted. His language from that summer betrays his anxiety — so threatened was Schumann that he almost could not say the word “string quartet.” Instead, he said only that he was having “quartet-ish thoughts” and referred to the music he was planning as “quartet-essays.” Finally he overcame his fears, and in June and July of 1842 Schumann quickly composed three string quartets. While there is much attractive music in those quartets, no one would claim that they are idiomatically written for the medium. Schumann did not play a stringed instrument, and those three quartets — however sound their musical logic — often sit uneasily under the hand. But at this point Schumann, still enthusiastic about chamber music, made a fertile decision: he combined the piano — his own instrument — with the string quartet. In the process he created the first great piano quintet — and his finest piece of chamber music. [ ... ]
BRAHMS Quintet for Piano and Strings
in F Minor, Opus 34
Brahms began work on the music that would eventually become his Piano Quintet in F Minor during the summer of 1862, when he was 29 years old and still living in Hamburg. As first conceived, however, this music was not a piano quintet. Brahms originally conceived it for string quintet — string quartet plus an extra cello — and almost surely he took as a model the great String Quintet in C Major of Schubert, a composer he very much admired. But when Joseph Joachim and colleagues played through the string quintet for the composer, all who heard it felt it unsatisfactory: an ensemble of strings alone could not satisfactorily project the power of this music. So Brahms set out to remedy this: he returned to the score during the winter of 1863-64 and recast it as a sonata for two pianos. Once again the work was judged not wholly successful; it had all the power the music called for, but this version lacked the sustained sonority, possible with strings, that much of this music seemed to demand. Among those confused by the two-piano version was Clara Schumann, who offered the young composer a completely different suggestion: “Its skillful combinations are interesting throughout, it is masterly from every point of view, but — it is not a sonata, but a work whose ideas you might — and must — scatter, as from a horn of plenty, over an entire orchestra . . . Please, dear Johannes, for this once take my advice and recast it.”
Recast it Brahms did, but not for orchestra. Instead, during the summer and fall of 1864 he arranged it for piano and string quartet, combining the dramatic impact of the two-piano version with the string sonority of the original quintet. In this form it has come down to us today, one of the masterpieces of Brahms’ early years, and it remains a source of wonder that music that sounds so right in its final version could have been conceived for any other combination of instruments. Clara, who had so much admired her husband’s piano quintet, found Brahms’ example a worthy successor, describing it as “a very special joy to me.” (Brahms published the two-piano version as his Opus 34b, and it is occasionally heard in this form; but he destroyed all the parts of the string quintet version.)
The Piano Quintet shows the many virtues of the young Brahms — strength, lyricism, ingenuity, nobility — and presents them in music of unusual breadth and power. This is big music: if all the repeats are taken, the Quintet can stretch out to nearly three-quarters of an hour, and there are moments when the sheer sonic heft of a piano and string quartet together makes one understand why Clara thought this music might be most effectively presented by a symphony orchestra. [ ... ]
Brahms String Quintets & Sextets
The Brahms Project
Mendelssohn + Schumann
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ALSO SEE (more Brahms below):
Brahms String Quintets & Sextets
• • •
Quintet for Piano and Strings
in E-flat Major, Op. 44
1 Allegro brillante
2 In modo d’una Marcia
3 Scherzo: Molto vivace
4 Allegro ma non troppo
Quintet for Piano and Strings
in F Minor, Op. 34
5 Allegro non troppo
6 Andante, un poco adagio
7 Scherzo: Allegro
8 Finale: Poco sostenuto –
Allegro non troppo –
Presto, non troppo
• • •
Brahms String Quintets & Sextets
The Brahms Project
Mendelssohn + Schumann
“Alongside her burgeoning career as a soloist and concerto performer, the pianist Joyce Yang has also demonstrated impressive gifts as a chamber musician. Here she joins the excellent Alexander String Quartet for passionate, soulful readings of two pinnacles of the chamber repertory.”
— Vivien Schweitzer, New York Times (April 2014, FCL 2014 Brahms Schumann Piano Quintets)
“Quite simply, this is a quartet that does not mess around. Call them whatever you like: the eye of the tiger, the eye of the storm, but they are in there pitching from note one and they simply do not let up until the last note of the last movement of any work they approach.
“Yang plays with that rare combination of lyrical flow, rhythmic excitement, and a deep-in-the-keys touch that make her an exceptional fifth member of the group, not just an extra added attraction. … The last movement practically dances on the head of a pin: this quintet simply can’t contain its joy in playing this music.
“Turning to the Brahms … The way I hear it — and this, of course, is only my impression — Alexander looks at a score and “sees” the notes as if in 3D relief, suggesting accents and phrasing that the players then put into practice when rehearsing. Their approach reminds me of such conductors as Rodzinski, Toscanini, Munch, or Gielen, a straight-ahead reading in which one hears inner voices as if X-rayed, yet never loses the lyrical flow of the music or its ability to surprise the listener with innumerable small details.
“If you enjoy these two works, you owe it to yourself to hear what the Alexander Quartet and Joyce Yang make of them.”
— Lynn René Bayley, Fanfare Magazine
(Feb. 2014, FCL 2014 Brahms Schumann Piano Quintets)
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Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34
About the WorkComposer: Johannes Brahms
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda
When Brahms ambled into his favorite Viennese café one evening, so the story goes, a friend asked him how he had spent his day. "I was working on my symphony," he said. "In the morning I added an eighth note. In the afternoon I took it out." The anecdote may be apocryphal, but its intent faithfully reflects Brahms' painstaking process of creation, which is seen better perhaps nowhere than in his F minor Piano Quintet.
Brahms began work on the piece in early 1862 as a string quintet with two cellos, the same scoring as Schubert's incomparable C major Quintet, and by August, he had the first three movements ready to send to his friend and mentor Clara Schumann and to the violinist Joseph Joachim. They both responded enthusiastically at first ("I do not know how to start telling you the great delight your Quintet has given me," Clara wrote), but expressed reservations about the piece during the following months. "The details of the work show some proof of overpowering strength," Joachim noted, "but what is lacking, to give me pure pleasure, is, in a word, charm."
By February 1863, the String Quintet had been recast as a Sonata for Two Pianos, which Brahms performed with Karl Tausig at a concert in Vienna on April 17, 1864. The premiere met with little favor. Clara continued to be delighted with the work's musical substance, but thought that "it cannot be called a Sonata. The first time I tried the work I had the feeling that it was an arrangement.... Please, remodel it once more!" One final time, during the summer of 1864, Brahms revised the score, this time as the Quintet for Piano, Two Violins, Viola and Cello, an ensemble suggested to him by the conductor Hermann Levi. "The Quintet is beautiful beyond words," Levi wrote. "You have turned a monotonous work for two pianos into a thing of great beauty, a masterpiece of chamber music."
The opening movement, tempestuous and tragic in mood, is in a tightly packed sonata form. The dramatic main theme is stated immediately in unison by violin, cello and piano, and then repeated with greater force by the entire ensemble. The complementary theme, given above an insistently repeated triplet figuration, is more subdued and lyrical in nature than the previous melody. The closing theme achieves a brighter tonality to offer a brief respite from the movement's pervasive strong emotions. The development section treats the main and second themes, and ushers in the recapitulation on a great wave of sound.
Brahms' Schubertian strain rises closest to the surface in the tender second movement. The outer sections of its three-part form (A-B-A) are based on a gentle, lyrical strain in sweet, close-interval harmonies, while the movement's central portion uses a melody incorporating an octave-leap motive.
The Scherzo is one of Brahms' most electrifying essays. The Scherzo proper contains three motivic elements: a rising theme of vague rhythmic identity; a snapping motive in strict, dotted rhythm; and a march-like strain in full chordal harmony. These three components are juxtaposed throughout the movement, with the dotted-rhythm theme being given special prominence, including a vigorous fugal working-out. The central trio grows from a theme that is a lyrical transformation of the Scherzo's chordal march strain.
The Finale opens with a pensive slow introduction fueled by deeply felt chromatic harmonies, exactly the sort of passage that caused Arnold Schoenberg to label Brahms a "modernist." The body of the movement, in fast tempo, is a hybrid of rondo and sonata forms. Despite the buoyant, Gypsy flavor of the movement's thematic material, the tragic tenor of this great Quintet is maintained until its closing page.