The piano quintet genre often brings out the best in composers. Think of Schumann, Brahms, Franck, Dvorák, Fauré, and Shostakovich, for example. Add Amy Beach to these luminaries. Her 1907 Piano Quintet is jam-packed with soaring melodies, harmonic invention, masterful variety of texture, and a strong symphonic profile. Furthermore, she gives each musician plenty of opportunities to both wax lyrical and display virtuosity. Why this work doesn’t turn up in concert or on the competition circuit is a mystery. Nor has it been recorded all that often; indeed, my onetime reference version with Martin Roscoe and the Endellion Quartet on ASV is long out of print. All the more reason to beat the drum on behalf of Garrick Ohlsson and the Takács Quartet.
Their snarling unanimity and wide dynamic range in the brief introductory Adagio set the tone for a performance that goes the extra mile in every movement and every bar. We truly hear distinctions between dolce and dolcissimo while also appreciating how the melodic threads assiduously pass between the players with the utmost clarity. By adhering to Beach’s carefully plotted expressive and tempo indications, Ohlsson and his colleagues avoid any temptation to linger, push ahead, or emote.
Their attention to dynamic balances does special justice to Beach’s splendid ear for imaginative textural effects. For example, while the second violin takes up the cantabile main theme marked piano at letter B in the score, the first violin’s pianissimo countermelody seemingly appears from afar. Contrast this with a recent recording featuring the Coull Quartet on Somm, where there’s less dynamic differentiation between the violinists in that same passage. In the finale, Ohlsson/Takács easily surpass their recorded predecessors for leanness, sweep, and sheer excitement.
Although Elgar’s Piano Quintet has enjoyed more extensive representation on disc, the music is basically a patchwork of ideas that never really add up, no matter how persuasive the interpreters, including the present artists. Certainly you can’t fault their sensitivity, discipline, and power. Only in the first movement do I prefer the more fervent approach of Martin Roscoe and the Brodsky Quartet (Chandos), along with the less well played yet altogether swifter and lighter David Owen Norris/Mistry Quartet rendition (Decca). However, it’s the Amy Beach Quintet that truly matters, and the Ohlsson/Takács team has given us a reference recording to savor.