Along with the piano quintet, B major trio and clarinet trio, these three works represent the best example of Brahms' chamber music writing for piano and strings. All three of these pieces are truly incredible, and this is a recording that for the most part does justice to them.
Often, classical music discs made up of some of the best performers in the world result in either commercial nonsense, such as the 3 Tenors, or polar extremes in musical ideas, such as Gould and Rose's Beethoven collaboration. This works better, as these are among the more mild performers on their respective instruments.
Ax has always been a fairly tame performer compared to some of the other great pianists like Martha Argerich. He plays the notes, and he generally plays them quite well, but he often fails to truly make the magical things happen.
Stern was no longer at the height of his powers at the time of this recording, but these quartets are technically fairly easy on the violin, and Stern's mind was certainly still working. He generally sounds quite good.
Laredo makes an excellent violist, subtly adjusting from his violin sound and normal position to blend in as a middle voice.
Ma was much younger when this was recorded, and sounds like it. He was a much simpler player, and wasn't nearly as adept at the incredible color changes and ideas he's learned to express over the last several years.
The g minor piano quartet is probably the weakest piece of the three, though it's still fine. This group takes all the tempi slightly faster, and the famous finale races along at an incredible pace. It's classic Hungarian Brahms, masterfully written and masterfully played.
The A major is a far more majestic piece, and also gets an excellent performance overall. Ax makes the minor section of the slow movement absolutely terrifying in one of his best performances, and the light scherzo and finale are kept sweet and simple.
The c minor is incredibly dark and somber, and is given the best performance by the quartet. There are times when the music could have flowed more - in Yo-Yo's solo in the third movement, there are numerous breaks in the line that don't follow the harmonic rhythm, but he plays so beautifully it hardly matters.
Overall, this is an excellent CD, not perfect, not unusual or distinct, but certainly a good recording of this great music, and worth owning.