When I was a college sophomore feeling guilty about listening only to orchestral music, I asked a student who reviewed concerts in the campus paper to recommend some works to get me started in chamber music. His suggestions were the "Hunt" Quartet of Monart (the String Quartet in B-flat, K. 458) and the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat. They were excellent choices, and I would probably choose the same ones now - even though the work that actually got me hooked was the first of Beethoven's three "Rasumovsky" quartets (the F-major).
The Schumann Quintet is so very easy to listen to fact, with that quality of sounding lovably familiar on first hearing and yet fresh on the hundredth, that it is unquestionably the most beloved of all quintets for piano and string quartet (Schubert's even more beloved "Trout" Quintet being. by virtue of instrumentation any layout, a different sort of work). It is surprising that there have been so few recordings of it since the first one, made by Ossip Gabrilowitsch and the Flonzaley Quartet 50 years ago and available now in a decent transfer with other Flonzaley material in RCA set VCM-7103.
In addition to this celebrated recording and Clifford Curzon's old mono version with the Budapest Quartet (circulating now in Odyssey set 31 26 9919), only five stereo recordings of the Quintet are listed in the current Schwann, and a sixth that for some reason Schwann does not list. None of these is less than satisfying. yet none exudes the magic of the one recording that was circulating on 78s when I was getting acquainted with the work more than 30 years ago.
That notion is not mere sentimentalizing: Rudolf Serkin's marvelous recording of the Quintet with the distinguished string quartet led by his father-in-law, Adolf Busch, was one of the first items transferred to LP when Columbia introduced the new disc medium in 1949, and I still listen to it in preference to all others. However, that 10-inch LP has not been around for more than 20 years, and even if the recording were to be reissued now listeners would want more up-to-date sound.
The same consideration applies to the old Casals Festival version on Columbia with Dame Myra Hess and a quartet that included Isaac Stern and Paul Tortelier, but the late-60s Deutsche Grammophon recording with Christoph Eschenbach and the Drolc Quartet should have been kept in the active lists. What is in the lists now can be narrowed down to three superior performances.
Serkin rerecorded the Quintet in the mid-1960s with the Budapest Quartet; the performance is fine, if a little brittle and driven in comparison with the mellower earlier version with the Busches, and is available in two different formats from Columbia. One is as the final side in the Budapest's two-disc set of the three string quartets fo Brahms (M2S-734), the other a pairing with a Marlboro performance of the Brahms Horn Trio on MS-7266 in which the pianist's associates are Myron Bloom (first horn of the Cleveland orchestra) and Michael Tree (who played violin in this performance but shortly thereafter became the violist of the Guarneri Quartet).
The Guarneri performs the Quintet with Artur Rubinstein in his remake of the work, and it is first-rate, but so far RCA has made it available in this country only as part of a three-disc set otherwise devoted to the Brahms piano quartets (LSC-6188), and the jumbled layout of those six sides is probably the most maddeningly inconvenient sequence yet devised for any package of recordings; it really interferes with one's enjoyment of the music.
The strongest alternative to the Serkin/Budapest version is surely the elegantly expressive, beautifully recorded one by the Beaux Arts Trio with Samuel Rhodes (the violist of the Julliard Quartet) and violinst Dolf Bettelheim; it is paired on Philips (9500 065) with a similarly attractive presentation of Shumann's less frequently heard Piano Quartet in the same key of E-flat, Op. 47.
The smoothness of the sound and the choice of the piano Quartet as coupling make the Philips disc the most likely choice at the moment. There are, after all, more than a few other fine versions of the Brahms works packaged with the Serkin/Budapest - and, indeed, that very recording of the Horn Trio is available in a different coupling. But it would be impossible to go wrong with either the Serkin/Budapest or the Beaux Arts & Co., and those who love the Quintet will not have to work hard to persuade themselves that both are indispensable to their happiness.