William Howard / Schubert Ensemble of London

Brahms: Piano Quintet; Intermezzi

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The great F minor Piano Quintet of Johannes Brahms, like so many of his works, had a long journey before it arrived in its present form. It began as a string quintet before Brahms destroyed the score and reworked the composition as a two-piano sonata. Although Brahms himself was quite fond of this instrumentation, he once again gave in to criticism and finally settled on its ultimate incarnation as a piano quintet. All the changes were well worthwhile, as the quintet has secured its place as one of the titans of the chamber music repertoire and one of Brahms' greatest works. This Champs Hill Records album featuring the Schubert Ensemble does little justice to the immensity and grandeur of Brahms' work. The first and most noticeable issue is sound quality -- both the Schubert Ensemble's own and Champs Hill's recorded sound. Balance within the quintet is not ideal; inner voices -- particularly the poor viola -- struggle to be heard, even when carrying the melody. The overall sound quality is rather diffuse and unfocused, and the bass end of the piano lacks punch and definition. There also seem to be disagreements within the quartet with regards to tempo changes, intonation, articulation, and especially the length and release of long notes. The disc also includes the Op. 117 Three Intermezzi and Op. 118/2 Intermezzo in A major for solo piano. The Schubert Ensemble's founder and pianist William Howard performs with greater clarity and freedom on his own, but the album's murky sound quality remains.

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