Although it’s tempting to think of period performance as consisting mainly of lutes and viols, the reality is far from that! This is a recording of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No 1 in G Minor and the Piano Quintet in F Minor as he would have heard it. The three string players use gut-strung instruments and Neal Peres Da Costa plays a replica of Brahms’ Streicher grand piano. Along with Ironwood’s extensive exploration of performance practice of the late 19th century, this all adds up to quite a different sound.
I have to admit that I find a significant number of Brahms recordings woefully heavy and ponderous. These recordings, however, are quite the opposite. I suspect that it’s Ironwood’s careful research into the performance of the music of Brahms and his contemporaries that gives these performances a lightness that’s refreshing. Most recordings that I’ve heard of the Piano Quintet tend to emphasise the power of many of the passages, but for once ensemble passages are not completely overpowering.
The liner notes point out that one of the key elements of Brahms’ own performances was the avoidance of metronomic playing, calling it “free, very elastic and expansive”. Perhaps it is due to this that entrances are sometimes a little slipshod. A small price to pay, however, for a lively and bright recording of a couple of Brahms chamber favourites. Let’s hope there will be a Volume Two.