Alexander String Quartet / Joyce Yang

Brahms & Schumann: The Piano Quintets

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California-based Alexander String Quartet has quietly been crafting a body of work surveying the milestones of Romantic chamber music and in many cases offering fresh interpretations. Here they are joined by pianist Joyce Yang in the Schumann Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44, and the Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, by the 29-year-old Johannes Brahms. Both readings are tremendously exciting, and the musicians do a good job of getting these two works to belong together: they surely do, but they seem initially to have different moods. The Alexander Quartet gives the Schumann more speed and dramatic energy than it usually has. The opening five-note motif launches the listener immediately into the thematic development rather than announcing itself as a freestanding motive, and throughout there's a restless quality that makes the music look forward rather than backward toward Beethoven. That's all to the good as you move into the Brahms F minor quintet, perhaps the summation of the structural ambitions of Brahms' youth. The group's reading of the work is fast and furious, and if there are points where the more lyrical episodes seem to be straining to get back to the loud stuff, the overall impression is one of a performance that truly wrestles with the work, one that Brahms' listeners themselves would have treasured. A major statement in the High Romantic chamber repertoire.

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