Brahms by Heart (CD review)

Quartets Nos. 1 in C minor and No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51; Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major, Op. 67; Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111. Chiara String Quartet, with Roger Tapping, viola. Azica ACD-71289 (2-disc set).

For those readers not aware, the Chiara String Quartet is a string quartet based in Lincoln, Nebraska. They are the Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's School of Music, Harvard University's Blodgett Artists-in-Residence, and faculty in residence at the Greenwood Music Camp. Joining the group's regular members--Rebecca Fischer and Hye Yung Julie Yoon, violins; Jonah Sirota, viola; and Gregory Beaver, cello--for the Quintet No. 2 is violist Roger Tapping.

The group has been performing professionally since 2000, and they are currently in the midst of recording all of Brahms's string quartets and the aforementioned quintet. Yes, they are very, very good, and, yes, they are strong in the present album. Even a lukewarm Brahms fan like me found the music making engrossing; I'm sure the serious Brahms enthusiast would love it.

While it probably seems to you, too, as though German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote about 800 string quartets, he actually published only three, the three we have in this set. Something of a perfectionist, he reportedly destroyed about twenty other quartets he had written before the Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51 in 1873 finally satisfied him. No doubt it had something to do with his inferiority complex when he compared himself to Beethoven as he didn't write his first symphony until relatively late in life as well.

Anyway, the Chiara players are a delight in both of the first two Op. 67 quartets. A booklet note tells us that the "Chiara Quartet is moving forward by taking a cue from the past. Harkening back to a tradition that is centuries old and still common among soloists, the Chiara Quartet has adopted a new way of performing from memory or 'by heart.' After memorizing a work, the Quartet is rewarded with deeply gratifying performances in which each member feels fully present in the moment, truly performing with heart, by heart."

It must work since they sound so good together. They certainly pour strong feelings into each piece of music, playing up the contrasts in the score with gusto and emphasizing the vitality of every note. When they're moving along well, they adopt a zippy gait, and when they slow down, it's to a comfortable and meaningful pace. Whatever, memorized or not, they play together with precision, bringing both emotion and accuracy to their performances, from stormy intensity to hushed tranquility and from subtle beauty to sudden outbursts.

It would be about three more years after Nos. 1 and 2 before Brahms premiered his next string quartet, the Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major, Op. 67, in 1876. He called the work "a useless trifle," and it is, indeed, carefree and joyous. Again, we get clean textures from the Chiara players in a piece that bears some superficial resemblance to the work of Mozart and Beethoven. Compared to Quartets 1 and 2, No. 3 seems more relaxed and better unified, too. The Chiara group revel in the lovely tunes Brahms devised, and they give special attention to the climax of each movement, building the tensions slowly but attentively.

Brahms didn't publish the Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111 until 1890, just half a dozen years or so before his death. The Quintet adds a second viola to the usual complement of two violins, viola, and cello. Moreover, the Quintet seems built on a more-imposing scale than the Quartets, suggesting that perhaps Brahms had intended some of the music for inclusion in a possible fifth symphony. The Chiara ensemble surely do the work justice, playing it in grand style, the melodies soaring, the intertwining of the instruments sounding richly generous and robust. The third and fourth movements with their Gypsy-like intonations are particularly beguiling. Expertly played, this is chamber music for listeners who say they only like symphonic music.

Produced and engineered by Judith Sherman and assisted by Jeanne Velonis, the Chiara String Quartet recorded the music at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy, New York in April 2012. The first thing one notices about the sound is how vibrant and dynamic it is. There is nothing vague, recessed, or reticent about it, nor is it bright or edgy. It is moderately close yet not in your face. It's quite realistic, in fact, with good body and definition and plenty of air around each instrument.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa