Wait a minute. The title says Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 2. What's with the English Symphony Orchestra? The answer, of course, is that this recording documents Maestro Kenneth Woods's arrangement of the quartet for orchestra. It's a practice that often pleases music fans while annoying purists. Yet it's a practice that many composers followed themselves, rewriting previously published material into new forms. Brahms himself might have orchestrated his own quartet if he had thought of it or had time for it. Who knows.
So, why orchestrate the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 2 in particular? Maestro Woods tells us in a booklet note that it "contains a generosity of material and spirit that one doesn't often find in his later music." There's also the fact that the quartet is the longest of Brahms's chamber compositions and that it is among his most symphonic. But I rather suspect that Woods probably just thought it would be fun. Fair enough. ("I think it would be fun to run a newspaper." --Citizen Kane)
Anyway, German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26 in 1861, scoring it for piano, violin, viola, and cello. Like most symphonies, it comprises an opening Allegro (non troppo), a slow Poco Adagio, a quick Scherzo: Poco Allegro, and a closing Finale-Allegro. So, yes, you can see the symphonic development.
The question is how the music, originally intended for so few instruments, holds up when transcribed for some tenfold or more players. The answer (again, for anyone but the purist) is, pretty well. As we might figure, the result of hearing a newly orchestrated piece is at once familiar yet different. Admittedly, it had been many, many years since I last heard the quartet played as a quartet. (Although I no longer have it, I think my last listening might have been an LP with William Primrose in the ensemble.) Still, there was enough Brahms in Woods's reworking to remind me that this was, indeed, Brahms, while at the same time providing a completely fresh feel.
The opening Allegro at about seventeen minutes is the longest movement in the work. Woods takes it at an easy, graceful pace, the melodies flowing freely and effortlessly. The slow movement follows seamlessly, building on the bucolic atmosphere created in the previous section. Yet, under Woods there is a melancholic tone as well, compounded by a touch of pain. The fast movement is hardly that, at least not with Woods. It's just as gentle as the preceding parts, if at an obviously quicker tempo. Nevertheless, it builds steadily to a strong, vigorous head. Brahms ends the work in high fashion, with a Gypsy-like flourish, and Woods does it justice, both as orchestrator and conductor. It has all the grand yet youthful style you would expect from a Brahms not yet in his thirties.
By the time the work concludes, one has forgotten that the composer intended the music for a quartet. In essence, Woods has created a new Brahms Fifth Symphony.
Philip Rowlands produced and engineered the album, which he recorded at 192kHz at Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Ganarew, England in November 2017. The sound, as I've found from most Nimbus recordings over the years, is admirably lifelike, with just a touch of natural hall ambience. Although you won't find the absolute pinnacle of transparency here, you will get a smooth, detailed presentation in a realistic setting. The sound is warm, reasonably dimensional and dynamic, and pleasantly agreeable. It's just the sort of thing that fits Brahms to a T.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: