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Daily album review 19: Ensemble Made in Canada enchants in Mozart and Brahms début

By John Terauds on November 21, 2013

(Bo Huang photo.)
(Bo Huang photo.)

The impressive, elegant interpretations of piano quartets by Mozart and Johannes Brahms on Ensemble Made in Canada’s début album is proof that DIY recording can result in big-label quality.

Ensemble Made in Canada violinist Elissa Lee, violist Sharon Wei and cellist Rachel Mercer teamed up with pianist Angela Park to record Mozart’s E-flat Major Piano Quartet No. 2, K493 and Brahms’ C minor Piano Quartet No. 2, from Op. 60, at the Glenn Gould Studio in 2012.

Recording costs big bucks, so the Ensemble took a gamble by setting up an online fundraising campaign on Kickstarter — eventually exceeding their $8,000 goal by $6,000 dollars. The 97 people who pledged money must feel incredibly gratified to have received such a high-quality result.

The Mozart is balanced, clear, delicate yet still filled with colour and energy.

The Brahms quartet, like all of his music, is far more challenging than its easy-to-love Romanticism might suggest. The music too easily gets too heavy, too contrived. Yet, if the musicians go lightly, the result lacks the weight of conviction.

The Made in Canadians get it just right, with Mercer and Park anchoring Brahm’s all-important lower timbres confidently, and the two higher-pitched instruments adding the spark of life without ever sounding strident.

There are no liner notes with the CD, so I just want to mention that the Mozart piano quartets are significant because they introduce the piano into this particular chamber music setup for the first time. The music was commissioned in 1785 by the music publisher Hoffmeister — but Mozart gave No. 2 to another publisher, and it didn’t sell well, mainly because the music was too difficult for the amateur musicians who would have been the people performing chamber music at the time.

There’s a 20-year span between Brahms’ first ideas on the Op. 60 piano quartet (also known as the “Werther” quartet) and its completion in 1875. the Werther reference is all about Goethe-inspired suicidal desperation, a reflection of the mental health issues his close friend Robert Schumann was going through.

Both pieces in their very different ways reveal new layers of beauty with each listen — and the fine performances by Ensemble Made in Canada make it all the more tempting to do just that.

Hopefully the Ensemble will soon post details of the album on their website here. UPDATE: In my enthusiasm for the album, I jumped the gun on its availability, which will include iTunes, starting Dec. 5.

Their next performances in Toronto are both free: at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre on Dec. 5 (details here) and the Great Hall at Hart House on Sunday, Dec. 8 at 3 p.m.

John Terauds

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