Gabriel Fauré’s musical language bridges a gap between the romanticism of the 19th century and the new worlds of music which appeared in the 20th, employing subtle harmonic changes and a gift for melody to combine innovation with an entirely personal idiom. His First Piano Quartet is filled with characteristic French colour and lyricism, and the Piano Trio in D minor is a late work whose musical language is familiar from his songs. Both the Pavane and the popular Sicilienne express nostalgia for earlier times, and the short Pièce has great simplicity and charm.
With the proliferation of more and more recording labels and still more ensembles getting the opportunity to record their work, it is obviously increasingly difficult to bring anything truly original when performing works from the standard repertoire. Unfortunately, this fact may lead to some questionable performance decisions in striving for originality. Such seems to be the case with the Leopold String Trio and Marc-André Hamelin and their performance of the Brahms piano quartets.
These extraordinary performances were recorded live at the Herodes Atticus Odeon in Athens in 2004 and offer the first musical encounter between Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle. One-time rivals for the post of principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, they here unite, happy to pay tribute to each other in a performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto of an epic grandeur and raw emotional intensity. Barenboim, pianist, conductor and political activist, has clearly reached the pinnacle of a dazzling career (a prophecy of his recent London performances of the complete Beethoven sonatas and concertos) that has ranged from prodigy to the fullest maturity. Caught on this form, few musicians can approach him in stature. Rattle launches the opening tutti with an explosive force, and after an oddly stiff and self-conscious entry (music that Tovey claimed as equal to anything in Bach’s St Matthew Passion) he quickly declares his true status, playing with a dark eloquence and with a breadth and range of inflection that allows him to savour every detail. Rarely can the first movement’s coda have emerged with such frenzied emotion, and here in particularly both Barenboim and Rattle combine to sound like King Lear raging against the universe (“Blow winds and crack your cheeks…”). The second movement, Brahms’s response to Schumann’s attempted suicide, is weighted with an almost unbearable significance and intensity, and in the finale Wolf’s strange dictum, “Brahms cannot exult”, is turned topsy-turvy.