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CD Review

Quintets for Piano and Strings

Joyce Yang, piano
Alexander String Quartet
Foghorn Classics CD2014
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This disc is nothing short of a delight, beautifully projected chamber music in deliciously clear sound. The Alexander String Quartet might not be a big name, even after 30 years, but they play magnificently here, and young pianist Joyce Yang proves more than a mere partner. As a way to get both works on a single disc, it doesn't get much better than this.

Schumann's orchestral works are bogged down by the composer's obvious discomfort with writing for large forces, so I tend to suggest his solo and chamber works to new listeners. His Quintet for Piano and Strings is a masterpiece, one which effortlessly demonstrates the affinity the composer had for the piano and smaller forms. At almost a half hour, it's no mere light work, either. Yang and the Alexander String Quartet really dive into the work and make it their own. Yang plays so colorfully, so whimsically, that you almost regret she isn't farther forward in the mix – almost. Her colleagues are equally expressive, and the sound is crystal clear. This is great music making, but also music making that sounded like it was a genuinely good time. There is something to be said for that, especially in today's market of overblown superstars and indifferent recordings.

The Brahms is a larger, darker work. Like Schumann, Brahms' chamber music is free from the heaviness of his orchestral output, and are all the more valuable in that they allow the listener to fully engage with the composer's great skill in bringing out instrumental voices. Again, Yang and the Alexander String Quartet impress with an abundance of color and virtuosity. It needs to be stressed that larger and darker doesn't mean that there isn't great beauty, or even a wonderful lightness in the instrumental exchanges. Rather, the unique sound world that is Brahms' own is fully in evidence here. Yang and her collaborators clearly love this music as much as the Schumann. Check out the simple elegance of the slow movement, or the rustic nature of the third; everything here is a remarkable achievement. Great packaging compliments a very fine and intelligently-themed chamber program. Superb.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman