Album Review: Olga Kern and Dalí Quartet

A new Delos issue pairs the Brahms F-Minor (1864) and Shostakovich G-Minor (1940) Piano Quintets, performed by pianist Olga Kern and the Dalí Quartet. The recording is underwritten by the Connie and Marc Jacobson Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Music Fund. The Virginia Arts Festival logo is prominently displayed. Brahms originally conceived the op. 34 Piano Quintet for pairs of violins and cellos, and one viola. When Joseph Joachim suggested adding a piano to the string ensemble, Brahms instead converted the quintet into a work for two pianos. Clara Schumann responded to the new version by stating it would be best served in an orchestral guise. Brahms was then in the midst of his steadfast refusal to compose a symphony that would, no doubt invoke the specter of Beethoven. Brahms instead created his version for piano and string quartet. In that guise, the Brahms op. 34 is celebrated as one of the great chamber works. Nevertheless, Clara Schumann pinpointed a richness in Brahms’s musical conception, both in thematic inspiration and development, and (even in its two-piano embodiment) generous sonic canvas. As such, Brahms’s score suggested the opportunity to shine when scored for full symphony orchestra. It’s a concept Arnold Schoenberg applied in his own orchestration of a kindred Brahms chamber work, the Piano Quartet in G Minor, op. 25 (1861).

I mention all this as justification for my preference for renditions of the Brahms opp. 25 and 34 that embrace the works’ symphonic potential. Such a vision encompasses a full-blooded approach, one that celebrates the opulence of Brahms’s instrumental canvas, as well as the music’s youthful passion. And that is what Kern and the Dalí Quartet provide in abundance. The opening measures are delivered with a hushed intensity and marvelous tonal unanimity. Kern and the ensemble plunge into the succeeding music with the utmost vigor and biting intensity, leading to a blazing ff account of the initial principal theme. That sequence is emblematic of the performance as a whole, one notable for its Romantic fire, precision of execution, and tonal amplitude. The pacing also strikes me as well-nigh ideal; an admirable balance of forward momentum and expressive application of rubato. And the ensemble proves itself every bit as convincing in the many restrained lyrical moments as in the extrovertly passionate ones. This is a Brahms op. 34 that satisfies on all levels (including observance of the first movement’s exposition repeat).

The challenge of the Shostakovich op. 57 (beyond its technical hurdles) is to present the quintet as a unified, coherent piece, rather than an assemblage of individual episodes. The op. 57 Quintet embodies a kaleidoscope of moods and colors, sometimes even within a single movement. A successful performance demands that the musicians convincingly portray these shifting emotions, all the while maintaining a continuity of narrative voice and transparency of ensemble. Once again, Kern and the Dalí Quartet rise to the occasion. The opening Prelude bears all the appropriate weight and sternness. The musicians execute Shostakovich’s extended second movement Fugue with breathtaking delicacy and seamless momentum. The Scherzo abounds with a lighthearted energy and humor. The final two movements (played without pause) are equally impressive, with the ensemble capturing both the haunting pathos of the Lento and the Finale’s rusticity and optimism. And while doing justice to all the twists and turns of the work, the musicians present it as a unified narrative. The recorded sound is excellent. Chaz Stuart’s liner notes offer valuable background and perspective. The Brahms op. 34 and Shostakovich op. 57 are both great works, but quite different in character. There is no guarantee that even the finest ensembles will perform them to equally impressive effect. But that is precisely what Olga Kern and the Dalí Quartet achieve on this Delos recording. Recommended.


Ken Meltzer, Fanfare Magazine
Back to List
Back to Top