Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major (CD review)

Orchestrated and conducted by Kenneth Woods, English Symphony Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance NI 6364.

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.

Kenneth Woods
Naturally, it helps that Maestro Woods has the full measure of the music. Well, he ought to since he orchestrated it. It's not quite like hearing music played by the composer himself, but it's close. Mostly, though, it helps that Woods doesn't try to enhance the music further with any flashy conducting gymnastics. Pretty much we get Woods at the podium and not a HIP, period-instruments whiz trying to flash through the score in record time. And it helps that the English Symphony Orchestra is a well-disciplined group that seems perfectly comfortable with Woods's direction. Together, conductor and orchestra ensure a rewarding experience.

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:

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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 both its equipment and recordings 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 simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, 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