These two works (symphonic in scale, complexity and concentration) demand a huge range of feeling and technical grasp which make it an achievement to include both in one concert. Joanna MacGregor and the Philharmonic’s strings, despite the necessary physical distancing, rose to the task with performances of sustained beauty and power.
The opening movements of both pieces demand great drive and forward movement. Chris Darwin’s excellent notes point out that the Brahms started life as a string quintet but we can be grateful that the composer’s willingness to take advice to recast it – first for two pianos and then as this quintet – resulted in two new vividly idiomatic works in which the percussive bite of the piano gives much added drama and clarity.
To come up with a really memorable melody can create difficulties for a composer (where to go next?) and the slow movement in Schumann’s quintet (dedicated to a cellist), beautifully played today without excessive sentimentality, is in danger of overbalancing memories of this tightly written work. Brahms (often accused by his contemporaries of not writing sufficiently memorable tunes!) has other purposes in mind and his less expansive but delicately elegant idea leads to workings out eloquently performed.
The Scherzos of both pieces enjoyed sharply acerbic performances. Schumann at his lightest and most Mendelssohnian, Brahms sometimes almost savage in his percussiveness and sense of pending trouble – all brilliantly tackled head on.
The leaping finales both have a sense of darkness overcome and were a joy to see and hear. Schumann clearly takes pleasure in the ingenious fruits of his studies in counterpoint, giving the players many testing moments – all excitingly relished here.
The bright, well-balanced audio and perfectly queued video almost made up for not actually being there for what would surely have been an ovation.