The Opus 76 Quartet, "Kansas City's string quartet", reached out to me with an offer of promotional CDs in consideration of a review. I was eager to hear them and accepted. I didn't realize at the time that their CDs are not commercially available, but are produced on their own label and can be purchased as downloads or on CD-Rs only from their own website. This is not normally something I would review, but after watching some of their excellent videos on YouTube, I wanted to give them a try. And in due time, a package arrived and I dug in.
These are CD singles. Each disc contains just one work, lasting 31 and 37 minutes respectively.
Beginning with the Mendelssohn 3rd Quartet, it is immediately apparent this is a very accomplished, professional and musical group. Their playing bubbles with joy, spirit and sweeping lines. This is a smiling account of the first movement, with a sunny, almost pastorale feel. I found myself humming along with its loveliness. After the jubilant exposition, the tempo eases beautifully for the second subject - but not too much - and the joyfulness bursts forth again with the recapitulation. The performance gains even more strength as it reaches the finale, where the playing soars with exuberance. The tempos in all four movements are perfectly chosen and there is an effervescent sense of spontaneity which pervades the entire performance. I enjoyed it very much.
This first violinist, Keith Stanfield, is certainly excellent, and leads with a gloriously vibrant, full-bodied tone and singing legato; the violist, Ashley Stanfield (his wife) impresses with her rich, husky tone adding much character to the group; and cellist, Daniel Ketter, plays with authority - but isn't at all gruff, as is too often the case in these particular Quartets. (I do not intentionally slight the second violinist, Zsolt Eder, by not singling him out.) The entire group plays with unanimity and an assured musical approach. There can be no complaints whatsoever about the marvelous playing.
The recorded sound is a little distant and over-reverberant compared to the very best recordings. (I have been listening to a lot of string quartet music on esteemed labels such as BIS, Chandos and Cedille lately, and I get spoiled by their state-of-the-art sound quality.) The Opus 76 sound like they were recorded in an empty hall with the listener placed mid-way, or even further, back. But it is well focused and sufficiently "present", and the acoustic bathes the ensemble in a warm glow (which isn't unappealing) - but somewhat at the expense of immediacy. Once the ear adjusts, however, the music-making soon reigns supreme and the acoustic is forgotten.
The next CD I received is the Brahms Piano Quintet. And many of the positive musical attributes made above apply here as well. The playing itself is appropriately more muscular for Brahms, with more authority from the strings and sensitive piano playing from Julie Coucheron. It is worth noting the piano does not dominate this reading, but is an equal with the quartet - just as it should be.
Tempos are such an important aspect of any Brahms performance, and they are particularly well chosen here - at all times moving, flowing, dramatic, often very exciting - and never sluggish. The Scherzo, in particular, is impressive, with a very quick tempo, high energy (and high spirits), and, later, some positively ferocious bowing, without ever becoming aggressive. The violins are awesome here! And I couldn't help but react with a "Wow!" And then the second subject which follows is the most sweetly singing musical expression; the first violin again soars with rapturous singing lines. The opening of the finale, with its aching ardor, is as emotionally moving as I've ever heard it, and the Allegro which ensues is invigorating. This is an outstanding performance and I can't remember enjoying the piece as much as this.
Coincidentally, I happened to hear another recording of the Brahms playing on Sirius FM a day later, and was so utterly bored by it I went on about my business tidying up the house while it continued on and on. (The announcer later stated it was in fact played by Christoph Eschenbach and the Amadeus Quartet.) What a striking contrast to the Opus 76's performance, where I was never once, not for an instant, distracted - much less bored! There is a freshness and involvement about their playing which is usually only experienced in a live performance.
Unfortunately, the recording is not ideal. The rather distant perspective here also brings just a hint of thinness of tone and a touch of grainy texture to the strings which were not evident on the Mendelssohn. But I must stress once again, it is not detrimental to the overall enjoyment of the performance - as evidenced by my overwhelmingly positive comments above.
The observations above were made based upon listening on my primary stereo system (the specifics of which are detailed on the homepage of this blog). For comparison, I also listened to these CDs on my second, headphone-based CD player, and was less bothered by the distant perspective. And only occasionally did the excessive reverb create cause for concern. However, the slight thinness in the Brahms was evident there as well. I suspect the download versions may be best of all. (I do not have that capability and therefore did not try it.) Certainly, the YouTube videos are impressive, including the sound.
My impression of the Opus 76 String Quartet is that they deserve a record label (such as Naxos) to do them full justice and bring their music making to a wider audience. This is a group to watch.
As noted earlier, these discs are CD-Rs and come in a slim-line case with just a single page front insert. However, there is room on the inside to include not only the track listing and personnel, but a concise, informative liner note about the music and the ensemble as well. They are available at www.opus76.org.