, November 2010
This eight disc box constitutes a healthy chunk of the recorded repertoire of the Ames Piano Quartet and all its Dorian output. Moreover it consolidates twenty years of recording activity that reveals consistency, tonal homogeneity and a probing attitude to the repertoire, as well as a dignified approach to the established canon.
Taking the recordings in disc order we begin with the two Dvořák piano quartets. This gets things off to a good, if occasionally bluff start. The front-on recording can build up the ensemble size and this occasionally militates against finesse, and characterful phrasing in which respect the Ames must cede to the Suk ensemble performance or the Firkušny/Juilliard, amongst older front-runners. I recently reviewed a performance of the two Fauré quartets by the Hermitage Trio and Kathryn Stott. This older Ames traversal tends to avoid some of the awkward phrase-turning that sometimes besets the Chandos newcomer and, to be fair, quite a few ensembles that tackle these works. The Ames take fine, well judged tempi and I find them especially successful in the second quartet, where the fluently argued opening is a real asset. Conversely their C minor can edge toward the generic.
The third disc gives us Strauss’s youthful and overlong Op.13 but which is played with ripe eloquence by the Ames, with an especially warmly textured third movement. Coupled with the Strauss is the far more individual Widor. This confident and purposeful work fares especially well. There’s much lyric generosity, and the lovely relaxed Adagio is the recording’s crowning achievement. Even acknowledging the Beaux Art’s recording of the Schumann, with Samuel Rhodes, one can still make out a powerful case for the Ames. They play this with rich tone, unfailing judgement and real individual and corporate strength—this is one of the standout performances of the set. The Brahms recordings may not be up to this level but are still persuasive. There are one or two individual approaches to tempo relationships but in the main these works benefit from the big, powerful sound perspective and from the assured and experienced approach of the players.
There’s an enjoyable Russian disc. Of the Taneyev and Juon Piano Quartets it’s the Juon which is the better played and interpreted. The work’s folklorically coloured patina is well evoked, so too the ripe lilt of the second movement. The melancholic moments of the finale are balanced by extrovert ones, the whole thing being a rich and delightful affair, performed with real panache. The Taneyev (Juon’s teacher) is a bit stodgy and lacks just that sense of excitement that permeated the Juon. Yudina and the Beethoven show the way here, even with faded sonics. The penultimate disc is an exploratory Czech one. You don’t often hear Novák’s youthful Op. 7 Piano Quartet. Fortunately the Ames is in bold, confident form utilising its rich sonority to great effect. How tenderly they phrase the restatement of the lovely theme of Suk’s equally youthful Op.1 work, written three years before the Novák. This too receives a most persuasive reading and whilst I won’t be getting rid of the Suk/Štepán Supraphon, the Ames shows that ‘you don’t have to be Czech’. Martinů’s Piano Quartet also receives a fine performance, spiky, tensile but not quite as characterful as that anchored by Emil Leichner in his 1981 Supraphon recording with Novák, Špelina and Moucka. The final disc shows Chausson in spirited post-Franckian form—which is played with power but relenting refinement when necessary—and Saint-Saëns’s witty, polished and occasionally Schumannesque opus. Its maestoso moments and calls to arms are deftly played.
The sturdy box comes with good, extensive notes. Obviously you will need to seek out the Ames’s other recordings to give you a better understanding of just how far they have ranged (Alexander Mackenzie’s 1873 Piano Quartet in E flat major, for example) but this set gives us their major statements in an admirable way.