Brahms By Heart / Chiara String Quartet

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BRAHMS String Quartets: Nos. 1–3. String Quintet No. 2 in G 1 • Chiara Str Qrt; 1 Roger Tapping (va) • AZICA 71289 (2 CDs:...

BRAHMS String Quartets: Nos. 1–3. String Quintet No. 2 in G 1 Chiara Str Qrt; 1 Roger Tapping (va) AZICA 71289 (2 CDs: 139:03)

I’ve called attention to the highly complex, often counterintuitive nature of Brahms’s rhythmic procedures on so many occasions that I’m sure the reader has grown tired of hearing about it. But it’s worth mentioning once again in light of this new recording of Brahms’s string quartets because some of the rhythmic counterpointing between the voices in this music can be so mathematically abstruse as to be near to impossible to realize exactly as written, and it’s not altogether uncommon for even the best players to fudge certain passages as best they can. Not so the Chiara String Quartet—more on that anon—an ensemble I’m encountering here for the first time.

The group is not new to the scene. Rebecca Fischer, Hyeyung Julie Yoon, Jonah Sirota, and Gregory Beaver have been playing together for 14 years, so I can only explain the cause for my not having encountered them before being the fact that all but one of their six previous albums have been devoted to the type of Modernist contemporary composers I’m inclined to avoid. Raymond Tuttle reviewed one of those albums in 29:2, a 25-minute single containing a string quartet by Robert Sirota (a relative, I assume, of the ensemble’s violist Jonah?). I notice, however, that one of the Chiara’s albums prior to this one is a recording of the Mozart and Brahms clarinet quintets with clarinetist Håkan Rosengren, which, as far as I can tell, has not been reviewed in Fanfare.

Now, back to the point about rhythm. The title of this new release is Brahms by Heart , so named because the Chiara’s players have adopted the practice of memorizing their parts and playing without the music in front of them. Of the practice, the ensemble’s cellist Gregory Beaver says, “The act of performing from memory has been challenging for us. Each member must find a way to know the music inside and out. But the payback for each of us is equally rewarding, bringing us that much closer together in our music-making.” After spending countless hours working towards playing their repertoire from memory, they now feel that the sheet music is a distraction to the performance, instead of an aid. And this, I believe, is Chiara’s secret to a rhythmic accuracy in Brahms the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever heard before.

Take bars 59 and 60 in the first movement of the C-Minor First Quartet. It’s not the most rhythmically convoluted passage in these works by a long shot, but it’s tricky enough because the pattern in the two violins is exactly the reverse of the pattern in the viola and cello, so that when the two upper voices have a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note, the two lower voices have an eighth note followed by a dotted quarter-note. No matter which line you’re playing, it’s really hard not to get pulled gravitationally into the line doing the polar opposite. But listen to the Chiara play these measures, and you’ll hear not just how they fit together, but how they produce a sort of oscillating or undulating effect. Brahms knew what he was doing after all.

Greater complications arise in the Adagio of the G-Major String Quintet. Now Brahms has five voices to play with instead of four. Try to figure out bar 49. We’re in a very slow 2/4. The cello’s first beat is essentially a sextuplet, though it’s written as two conjoined 16th-note triplets, while the second beat is taken up by a dotted eighth note followed by a 16th. Meanwhile, against that the four upper voices all have exactly the same rhythm for the first half of the bar, but it’s nasty. If you deconstruct it, the first beat is made up of four notes, kind of like the three eighth notes in a triplet, except that there’s one extra note in it, and they’re conjoined by a single ligature in which there’s a 16th note followed by an eighth note with a superscript 3 over it, and an eighth note followed by a 16th note with a superscript 3 over it. So those four notes have to be played in one beat in a kind of notes inégales fashion over the cello’s six-note sextuplet, also played in one beat.

The second half of the measure is even worse. Now instead of all four upper voices having the same rhythm, the two violins play what amounts to the sextuplet the cello had on the first beat, except that it’s weirdly fractionalized as a 16th note followed by a rest and another 16th—that’s the first half of the sextuplet—which is tied to three more 16ths for the second half of the sextuplet. Against that the two violas play what appears to be more or less the opposite of what the two violins are playing, with their three 16ths coming first followed by an eighth and a 16th with a superscript 3 over it. On this second beat of the bar, the cello has it easy, a simple dotted-eighth tied to a 16th.

To even begin to sort this out while playing it, the movement really needs to be counted in four, a common technique in slow movements where notes of small values and fractionalizing of the beat makes it easier to mentally double the note values, so you count each eighth note as one beat instead of a half, effectively making the meter 4/4 instead of 2/4. But even at that, this is just damn hard, and it’s one of those measures that many ensembles do a good job of fudging the arithmetic so that it comes out sounding pretty close to what Brahms wrote, but it’s still not exact.

Fortunately, the Chiara takes the movement in a very slow four—and the recording is very transparent—so you can really hear each voice in detail, and it’s absolutely amazing, not just how accurately the players put this bar together when they get to it, but the same interlocking rocking effect noted in the passage in the string quartet cited above.

I don’t mean for this entire review to be about the Chiara’s astonishing rhythmic acuity, for this is no Johnny-One-Note ensemble. This is music-making of incandescent tonal beauty and penetrating communicative expression. Brahms’s string quartets are seldom singled out for being the composer’s most loveable works; yet the Chiara Quartet finds a rare inner radiance in them that speaks with deep resonance and understanding. I can honestly say that I’ve never heard these works played so exquisitely, whether in the intense urgency of the C-Minor Quartet, the Gypsy-inflected passion of the A-Minor Quartet, or the jaunty jocularity and easefulness of the B?-Major Quartet.

The tapping of celebrated violist Roger Tapping to join the Chiara in Brahms’s G-Major Quintet was a masterstroke that further increases the value of this set already worth its weight in gold. Tapping was for many years violist in the Takács Quartet and, as of 2013, he became only the third violist to hold that chair in the Juilliard Quartet.

Can we look forward to a follow-up set containing Brahms’s F-Major Quintet and the two string sextets? Meanwhile, if you never thought Brahms’s string quartets were worth a second listen, I implore you to hear them played by this awesome American foursome calling itself the Chiara String Quartet. The outstanding sound, by the way, is explained by the fact that the recordings were made in the nearly acoustically perfect Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, New York.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Release Date: March 25, 2014

  • UPC: 787867128923

  • Catalog Number: ACD-71289

  • Label: Azica Records

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Composer: Johannes Brahms

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Chiara String Quartet

  • Performer: Roger Tapping


  1. Quartet for Strings no 1 in C minor, Op. 51 no 1

    Composer: Johannes Brahms

    Ensemble: Chiara String Quartet

  2. Quartet for Strings no 2 in A minor, Op. 51 no 2

    Composer: Johannes Brahms

    Ensemble: Chiara String Quartet

  3. Quartet for Strings no 3 in B flat major, Op. 67

    Composer: Johannes Brahms

    Ensemble: Chiara String Quartet

  4. Quintet for Strings no 2 in G major, Op. 111

    Composer: Johannes Brahms

    Ensemble: Chiara String Quartet

    Performer: Roger Tapping (Viola)

  5. Quintet for Strings no 2 in G major, Op. 111

    Composer: Johannes Brahms

    Ensemble: Chiara String Quartet

    Performer: Roger Tapping (Viola)