Berlin Piano Quartet: Quartets by Brahms, Fauré, Schnittke (RCA)

Schoenberg’s ingenious, technicolour recasting of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor is a real guilty pleasure. One so addictive that it’s easy to forget how good the original is. Especially in a performance as smart as this, where every strand is audible and there’s never a hint of muddiness. Pianist Kim Barbier and her string playing colleagues, each of the three drawn from the Berlin Philharmonic, are phenomenally good. There’s never any trace of one-upmanship; these players do collaboration very nicely. The music soars – sample violist Micha Afkham’s glorious handling of the first movement’s lyrical second subject, ringing out over a bubbling piano line. Or the movement’s stormy central section, the accents weighty enough without being overbearing. This has to be one of the most viscerally exciting of Brahms’s large scale works, and this performance doesn’t sell it short. The third movement’s march interlude is wittily handled, and the “Rondo alla Zingerese” is a marvel. The quirks are just as apparent in its quartet arrangement – the irregular phrase lengths and extraordinary cadenza sound bolder than ever, before one of the most exhilarating minor key closes in all music.

Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1 is musically as satisfying, if less showy. There’s a lovely veiled quality to the Berliners’ account of the melancholy slow movement, the mood apparently a response to a broken engagement. Barbier excels in the hyperactive Finale, the closing flourish immaculate. As an unlikely bonus we get Alfred Schnittke’s single movement Piano Quartet, based on an unfinished fragment by a young Gustav Mahler. His notes are only quoted in full just before the movement’s close, allowing us to make sense of what’s gone before, Mahler’s shadowy romanticism refracted through late 20th century angst. It’s a disturbing grower of a work, brilliantly played here. Handsomely recorded and highly desirable, and worth acquiring for the Brahms alone.

by Graham RicksonSaturday, 16 April 2016