Elgar: String Quartet, Op. 83 / Piano Quintet, Op. 84 Import
Elgar's large-scale rhetorical works are now familiar to most, but his chamber music deserves to be better known. These expansive three-movement pieces are late works, elegiac and deeply personal. The Quartet centers on a tenderly intimate slow movement. Flanking it are a tersely argued opening Allegro moderato and a Finale that has the fire and scale of some of his orchestral pieces. The Quintet, rhetorical and dramatic, is perhaps more immediately accessible. It, too, has a central Adagio movement of aching beauty. Ian Brown's muscular pianism doesn't lack for introspection when needed, and the four women of the Sorrel Quartet play both pieces with technical aplomb, stylish command, and the warmth that brings them to life. Choosing between this version, the Maggini Quartet on Naxos, and the classic EMI recordings with John Ogden in the Quintet is difficult; all capture the Elgarian essence of this fine music. --Dan Davis
Stylistically, the Quintet and Quartet can evoke the music of Johannes Brahms, but with Elgar’s characteristically dark and elegant understatement. The luminous yet gloomy oscillating theme in the Piano Quintet’s opening Allegro is particularly memorable, presented as part of the second group of the sonata form, but there are many other great touches. The Adagio of the Piano Quintet receives a particularly effective performance by the Sorrel, joined by pianist Ian Brown, who does very well throughout the work. The Adagio can be almost mawkish, but the Sorrel do it crisply and, instead of this mawkishishness, it is moving and subtle. Their Quintet finale struck me as particularly strong as well. The Sorrel and Brown can be credited with a consistently successful and often very beautiful pair of interpretations.
Along with the Sorrel, I have been sampling two other pairings of the Quintet and Quartet and was happy to find all three to be very fine and successful. They come from the Chilingirian Quartets, another first-rate Brit group that is not particularly well known in the US, and a pretty obscure Swiss ensemble named the Aura Quartet. The three interpretations have slight rather than massive differences; these Elgar works seem to suggest similar approaches from the different performers. In the spectrum of the three, the Chilingirian takes tempi on the slower side and add their usual musicality and a sense of emotion within a carefully balanced structure. The Chilingirian’s release is marked by an outstanding Piano Quintet, with the opening Allegro being particularly rich and affecting, done a bit slowly but with attention to detail and subtle sensitivity heard throughout. Because this is for me the standout individual movement in the Quintet and Quartet, the fact that the Chilingirian do this Allegro just so perfectly makes this recording the best of the three to which I have been listening, by a hair. In contrast, the Aura takes the music more quickly with more emphasis on the individual voices within the ensemble. The Sorrel have a more sensuous approach to the music, with more emphasis on the timbre and sounds, and are helped by the best engineering job here.
This is a strong field of performances – all of them are very good. You can get any of the three, confident you will be able to hear a top notch version of these compositions. The Sorrel is marked by moderate tempi, a focus on the sound and tonal palette, a particularly successful slow movement from the Quintet, and the best sound engineering. I’ll point out that the Sorrel have also recorded a remarkable Shostakovich disc (with quartets 7 and 8). I have very much enjoyed their work here, in a very different repertory.