Josef Labor Piano Quintets late-Romantic gems

Josef Labor wasn’t one to be hampered by disability — although it could inspire him. Labor lost his sight in childhood but went on to become a respected organist, pianist, teacher, and composer. He was also the first composer-pianist Paul Wittgenstein commissioned to write a left-hand concerto. (Wittgenstein lost his right arm in WWI.)

Labor was also colleagues with Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, and Gustav Mahler (whose wife, Alma, studied composition with him).

Labor’s two piano quintets were written around the turn of the century. To my ears, they seem influenced by Brahms. The music has a clear structure, and the motifs are carefully developed.

Labor’s harmonies seem to be more expansive than Brahms, though — and that makes these works more than just imitations. Labor was a pianist, so it’s not surprising that these quintets have especially meaty keyboard parts,

But the piano is still well-balanced against the strings, making these works sound like true quintets, where every instrument has a say.

To me, the performances were engaging. Labor didn’t have a lot of big gestures in his music, but there’s plenty of emotional content. And these performers delivered. Anyone who enjoys Fin de siècle late-Romanticism should find much to like here.

Josef Labor Piano Quintets
Nina Karmon, violin; Pauline Sachse, viola; Justus Grimm, cello; Niek de Groot, Contrabass; Oliver Triendl, piano
Capriccio C5390

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